I live in the middle of a blackberry forest in the south of England countryside.
Of course throughout the year my blackberry forest is other things: a source for nettles, a haven for mushrooms of all kinds, two trees that give wild cherries, a little clearing in the greens which magically sprouts ramps around May, and the wild garlic carpet that covers the entire forest shortly afterward, lush green shoots with small white flowers, emanating a garlicky aroma that makes parts of the dense, leafy, forest smell like a pizzeria.
But it is the blackberries that give the forest its name. To be honest, I’m the one who named it so, and to be honest, I’m the only one who calls it that, but really: it IS a blackberry forest, endless acres climbing up the hill, down along the creek bed, creating hedges on either sides of the pathways, hugging fields as it grows and grows and grows as the summer days warm…….The brambles start growing, getting leafy, and madly sending out tendrils, about June. Next, I see pinkish-white flowers adorn the long meandering new branches. Suddenly I see bunches of tiny green berries, a few at first and then whole banks of them, which as the days grow warming, begin to turn red…..and by the time we’re past the solstice, their small, scrawny berries are transforming into big, fat, berries, their druplets filling with juices and the red colour is turning purple-black. They are at their best when the berries get HUGE, and very plump, and soft, and gleam red-blue-black; by the time they grow dull in colour they are getting past their prime and on the verge of rotting.
I discovered the blackberries well into my first year that I lived here. It was not something I chose, living here, and a handful of months after I arrived, I was still bitter about it. How did my life go so wrong? Fourteen years later (life happens even when you plan to be out of a place within the month), I am even more upset with myself that I let it all unfold. And there was nothing, I mean, nothing, I liked about living here during that first year.
on the corner of a cul de sac, Prince of Wales Close
Until one day when I was out walking. Our house sits in on the corner of a cul de sac (aka “close” in uk-speak), in a boring suburban area of a very unremarkable part of the south of England. I was walking up to the shops in the village when I noticed a little foresty opening tucked between two look-the-same tract houses.
i found a paved path between the houses...and followed it.....
just an ordinary corner of suburbia uk-style
At first it looked like a walkway between the two houses, then I thought it might be a shortcut up to the village, but instead, Narnia-like, the houses gave way to a dirt path with forest on each side: trees, bushes, fronds and dense foliage.
i was suddenly on a foresty path....
I was suddenly in the middle of a forest, miles from any place or any one. Then I noticed the berries. I snatched one, I sampled a second; they were delicious.
In fact, I know i COULD make a pie or jam, but i love them fresh: such luxury! instead of buying a little container and doling them out parsimoniously, we could have as many blackberries as we liked! a huge bowlful for breakfast, and another for lunch and dinner, IF I managed to go out picking, and IF the forest had enough to give……these sweet sweet fruits, which each day replenished themselves: a miracle of the forest! Abundant, free, complex in flavour and good for you too!
Each day I carried my basket and followed further, in different directions, discovering paths and more paths. One led to fields, another to an impenetrable forest, another to a hidden hillside with a creek, home to little families of foxes, winding pathways through the forest dotted occasionally with tiny cottages.
Since then, whenever I am home for any extended period of time, I shut my eyes to the ugly of banality of my area and head
Jake, Oscar, and Lambchop, their leads/leashes all entangled like a maypole
for the forest where I can walk and walk and walk, my three Jack Russells–Jake, Oscar and Lambchop–at my side.
Jake, Oscar and "Chopsy" (short for Lambchop)
And when its the right time of year, I pick the berries.
That first day picking berries was a consolation for being somewhere I don’t want to be. Looking around and seeing that the hostile territory in fact has a hidden cache of delicious berries, free for the picking, comforted me. I couldn’t understand why anyone who lived here wouldn’t be in the forest with me, every day, filling their baskets too? When I saw/see blackberries for sale in the shops, I don’t understand WHO WOULD BUY, especially not when the shops are surrounded by woods rich with berries, berries far more interesting than the ones they are purchasing in the pristine little plastic punnets.
Surprisingly, not many people pick blackberries here, considering that it really is the most amazing blackberry forest I”ve ever seen. People cite the thorny brushes and brambles, able to shred your wrist and ankles in one forage. Not to mention stinging insects that sometimes are hidden by a leaf; I can’t tell you how many times I”ve reached out to grab one particularly enticing berry only to stop at the last minute realizing that the beady eyes of a wasp were on me, and it was inches from my fingers.
One of the saddest things is when a bramble is deliberately cut back severely, or cut down altogether. It could happen that I watch that area of the forest, and watch it and watch it, and then one day as I’ve carefully paid attention to each step along the way to berry-ripeness, I go check on the ripeness and suddenly the big branches laden with berries have been hacked away. The bare brush is not only an eyesore, but a personal loss: I had looked so forward to those berries. But when I’ve protested, little old ladies say: but the brambles trip us, they cut our fingers, we hate them! They are a nuisance! When we see them, we call the city council to come cut them down for safety’s sake!
But there is no stopping the forest. Last year swaths and swaths and swaths of blackberry patches were torn down, but this spring they sprouted up in different locations. One even snuck into our walled garden!
So I keep going, where one bramble in the forest dissappears, another replaces it in lushness. I think its the balance of sunshine and also the way of the bramble, wanting to spread out and grow grow grow. Sometimes I come upon someone picking them for jelly and jam; once a man was picking and we started talking. He asked me where I was from, and I said California, to which he replied: “Do they have blackberries in California?”. Oh, yes, I exclaimed, hoping for an intelligent conversation about my now-favourite topic: my life with blackberries. But instead he told me: “you should go back there and pick blackerries in California and leave our berries alone!!!”.
Another time, though, I was picking berries and a man jumped out of a bramble, with a big bag of berries, and we did have that happy conversation during which time he said, oh no he didn’t eat the berries, he made jam. And to prove it he ran into a nearby house and returned with a jar of thick black sweet jam. “For you” he said with a smile as he handed me the jar.
Picking berries gave/gives me an excuse to spend time in the forest. Being on the hunt is exciting: where will I find the most fruitful bushes, fattest berries, pockets of berries with the darkest yet still gleaming colours. This non-violent hunt has one target: deliciousness.
And aside from the thrill of the chase, the pricetag of “free”, the abundance and generosity of the forest, my berry picking and eating taught me many things about blackberries. Mainly this: when you buy blackerries from a shop or even a farm, they all taste the same. When you pick them in the forest, they are hugely varied, each one unique, each spoonful of berries an entirely different mouthful from each other.
Tasting my way through the forest–and each day is different, depending on sunshine, rain, temperature–as I pick, I put one in my mouth every so often, to taste: usually close my eyes, to really “get” its flavour, to feel on my tongue and in my mouth, the texture of the berry, too. Sometimes they are so full of sweet juice and so ripe that they melt, fall apart, simply dissolve in my mouth. That is usually when they are sweetest, too.
But inbetween the sourness of the unripe or the under-sunned, and the sweetness of the over-ripe, there is a wide variety of tastes and flavours.
Wild blackberries might have the depth of plums, their sweetness and tartness; at other times they might have the sweet roundness of black cherries, or if unripe, the sourness of wild cherries. Sometimes, when they are very sour they taste a little bit like gooseberries, though you need to taste this with closed eyes: gooseberries are green. Colours can confuse.
And also, before we get to their sweet ripeness, there are bitter elements: this usually comes about when the season hasn’t had enough sunshine, and perhaps its had too much rain. Sometimes it extends past the advent of sunshine and the berries become a sort of bitter-sweet, without an acidic edge that the larger berries generally develop before they balance and the sugars triumph! The bitter berries are smaller, tighter, with tinier druplets that seem to be all seed. Instead of the sensual disolving into sweet juice, blackerries such as these need to be chewed. You could almost say they are tough, though only compared with other oh-so-soft-ripe blackberries.
And it is those oh so ripe and soft berries that give you full berry happiness in taste: the berry that you pop into your mouth and find it tasting sweet, fruity, lyrical even, like……cream soda! like……cotton candy/candy floss! Today I picked some berries from a new patch, and they exhuded sweet lilacs, or lavender, depending on which berry.Its the unexpected variety of tastes–that hint of cinnamon, whiff of vanilla, whisper of bubble gum– that makes me throw back my head and laugh, then pop in another berry. Truly: when tasting berries in the wild, you never know what the next one will be like!
Other times they are sweet, yes, but flat; or they might be sweet and bitter; sometimes the little druplets are tiny, and the whole berry tiny, but you pick it anyhow. Sometimes those tiny little berries that consist of only a few big fat druplets, are delicious too!
Devotion to the forest started with that first appearance of the blackberries in my life. Since then, it is as if I have taken a crash course, no….make that a university degree…..in blackberries.
The perfect berry season needs several things in place: it needs nice strong sun at the right time, when the days are long, and it needs some rain, but not too much. One year we had so much rain that in the few sunny days the berries were able to ripen and go from red to black, before the rains came and rotted/moulded/ruined them all. Huge swaths of bramble bushes were covered with mould and other strange unpleasant growths…the blackberry forest simply gave up, and I waited until the next year. Most years are mixed, since the weather most summers are mixed. Too much rain rots the berries, that is the bottom line. There were wet years when few berries ripened before moulding; there was at least one year that was so fabulously hot I turned down a trip to Champagne as a guest of one of the great Champagne Houses, to stay near my forest until the end of the season.
Then, there was the year after my accident when I didn’t go blackberrying at all: not only did I not have use of my hands and arms, but I was unable to taste. It was heartbreaking, how acutely sensitive I had once been to the nuances of blackberries and now, how I could taste, and smell, nothing. No acidity, no sweetness, no roundness of flavour or bitterness of bad weather. There was no reason to go pick berries, and in any event: the pain in my hands was excruciating.
The next year I hit the forests again. I could taste a bit more, but not enough to kick in the thrill I once got from being in the forest, filling my mouth, signing with the deliciousness of the berries, then trotting home with a full basket….and my fingers were working, but not dextrous enough to carefully pick a berry without crushing it, and hold onto it firmly enough to get it from the bramble bush into my bag or basket. Each time I dropped more berries than I was bringing home, and it was an excercise in heartbreak. One of the greatest pleasures–in fact, one of the ONLY pleasures, the thing that makes this little plot of land special, even bearable, was taken from me. I had no idea if it would be returned.
When it is blackberry season I gather berries every day.
this mornings cache of berries
Locals might gather them every so often, to make jam and jelly, but I love them fresh,
Some of the things I make with blackberries: cheesecakes with blackberry toppings, buttermilk and blackberry smoothies, duck breast with blackberry sauce, blackberries with yogurt, added to a crumble with other summery fruit especially rhubarb, and blackberries suspended in elderflower gelee. Sometimes I make a “mess” that is, instead of the whipped cream-meringue and strawberry concoction known as Eton Mess, I make a “Waterlooville Mess”, Waterlooville being the name of my little town. Really it is. My favourite way to eat blackberries, though, is probably a big bowl of ice cream and blackberries in place of dinner.
The blackberries go on until about the end of September, around the time of Michaelmas, when they are once again covered with a weird substance, another mouldy strange horrible layer of substance, which renders them inedible. It is said that this substance is from the witches, who come to the blackberry forest after Michaelmas and spit on the berries. Really: once the witches have spit, you need to wait until the next year: they are inedible.
"Waterlooville Mess" inspired by "Eton Mess"
Serves 4, can be doubled, tripled, multiplied
In addition to the blackberries, whose brambles which surround Waterlooville and for which I named this variation on Eton Mess, a concoction of whipped cream, strawberries and crisp broken up meringues, I added a touch of yogurt to cut the richness of the cream, and a hit of rose water, because my waterlooville garden has gorgeous, sweetly aromatic, roses. I should have scattered petals onto this picture, right?
6 fl ounces/175 ml whipping or double cream
6-8 rounded tablespoons confectioners/icing/powdered sugar
3-4 tablespoons yogurt, any plain type: low fat, greek, fat free, etc
A few droplet of vanilla extract or rosewater to taste
About 2 cups ripe blackberries
6-8 small meringues, or as many as desired, broken into bite sized pieces
Whip the cream into soft billows, then gradually add the confectioners/icing/powdered sugar and keep whipping until it is firm, just before it turns to butter. Important to catch it before its too late!
Fold in the yogurt and either rose water or vanilla, mix well, then the berries and don’t really mix well at all, just sort of fold in unevenly. Add the meringues, and either eat right away, or chill until ready to serve; can be made ahead a day or two and covered to protect its delicate foresty flavours.