RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Juicy, free and ripe for picking from hedgerows

editorial image

It is blackberry time again, and there’s a wonderful crop this year.

The first berries ripened in the first week of August: succulent, sweet, with a flood of memories of childhood and the lovely days cramming my mouth as I wandered along the old country lanes until my lips were purple and my fingers so stained it took two washings with carbolic soap to remove what seemed to be tattoos!

If Marcel Proust’s memory stick was the madeleine, mine is the blackberry.

Walt Whitman wrote: “The running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven.”

Yet every year I am amazed to find uneaten fruit on the trackways where people walk.

Free fruit, as good as grapes, and you ignore!

But then, if as a country we can bin £890m worth of food waste into landfills, then blackberries will continue to be ignored unless packaged in plastic on the supermarket shelves.

In mid-August to early September the first berry on each cluster is the best and ripens alone.

These are the largest and sweetest and best of the autumn crop and should be eaten at once, uncooked and raw.

These are the ones the blackcap warblers and other migrants will take if possible.

These birds can quickly make the five grams of fat needed to fuel their muscles for the Sahara crossing with these.

Then secondary berries ripen, but are less juicy though good for pies and puddings, jam and wine.

There are many recipes.

Blackberry junket used to be a favourite for those who can’t stand the pips getting in their teeth. You compress the ripest berries in a cheesecloth until all the juice has run into a bowl, leave the rich black juice for two hours in a warm room when it will set and then eat with Devonshire cream or sponge fingers or bread and butter.

Blackberry cordial is a mix of rough scrumpy or farmhouse cider (‘tangley-legs’) the fresher the better, which is simmered for 15 minutes with honey then casked, finally bottled and drunk next summer.

We make a gallon or two of blackberry wine every year and it’s as good as any cheap plonk and stronger than it looks.

It has a lovely carmine glow like the last of a summer sunset.

Pour boiling water on to the berries, crush them when the juice has cooled enough, leave for four days, covering against the vinegar fly, strain then add a pound of white sugar to a gallon of liquid, cover again after adding a little yeast. Bakers’ yeast will do.

Leave for a year before tasting, until well after all the bubbling has stopped.

For puddings, never overcook these delicate berries: remember, they are like grapes at best.

So the pie crust should be thin to avoid pressure cooking and apple mixed with them to stop them retaining too much heat in the wood pips.

In the old days, black stockings could be revitalised with the dye from blackberry juice, and those pale lavender ribbons that adorned the hair of young women in the sort of scenes we see in Sense and Sensibility and other 18th-century period dramas was nothing more than the shades from our most prolific wild fruit, the humble blackberry.