Sunday, 13 October 2013

Season of Mellow Fruitfulness

Monday, 7th October 

This evening, just before darkness enveloped me and the surrounding landscape, I put on my welly boots and grabbed a plastic punnet to do a last bit of blackberry-picking up the lane. Lily pricked up her ears and wagged her tail, delighted at the idea of an 'out' having spent a boring afternoon in the car. She was less impressed when I stopped almost immediately to start my search for black fruit amongst the brambles and fading stinging nettles, the goose grass now looking limp and dried out where just a week or two ago it was still burgeoning. She shot me a mildly exasperated look of 'oh no, not again!' before settling into sniffing companionably about in the verges while I set about my business.

Those of you from more southerly climes will no doubt have stopped picking some weeks back, but up here in the High Peak there are still fruits to be had from the hedgerows and verges of our country lanes. It has been a phenomenal year for blackberries, the conditions of damp late spring and warm summer clearly suiting their development. Every time I have foraged since September I have noted the many berries still there to ripen and have gone back a week or so later to gather the next crop of shiny black clusters for my bramble jelly.

This evening, though, seemed very much like the party was over. I could see berries that were brown and shrivelled, berries that were dusty black and mouldy, and many fruitless stems where passers by had long since ravaged their fecundity. But if I peered hard into the gathering gloom and took the trouble to turn back leaves, my rewards were still plenty. There are even still a few brambles which are carrying red and green berries, still waiting to ripen in the golden October sun. 

The air was still and surprisingly warm, filled with evening birdsong; but otherwise all was peaceful - no car noise, no voices, no tractors, no planes nor even a single bleat of sheep or bark of dog. Just the blissful 'silence' of nature.

As darkness claimed the dying day I entered the field and walked back down to the house through the garden, clutching my full punnet and being careful not to slip or trip. There are still some berries to collect from my own 'rough patch' but it would have to wait till tomorrow. Lily flattened herself hopefully and expectantly on the lawn next to her ball and I threw it twice more for her before I conceded I really couldn't see a darn thing. The lights were glowing from the windows of the house and I glimpsed a daughter passing along the landing on her way down from her bedroom. The kitchen looked appealing and welcoming and an amusing episode of The Hairy Bikers on Bakeation awaited me on the television. Time for a glass of wine and a welcome sit down at the end of the day before I tackled the pile of dirty dishes in the sink and cajoled the girls through homework and into bed. Another busy day ahead tomorrow for them with a cross country competition for G and L and part of an English GCSE for E. And for me? Well, whatever else needs doing I will be finding time to make some more bramble jelly....


Tuesday, 8th October
The morning dawned promisingly and I had to drop the big green tank (aka Land Rover Defender) to the mechanic at the end of the lane (to fix the 'play' in the drop arms which would account for the apparent disconnect between steering wheel and actual wheels - not great on a Defender even at the best of times!). Lily was delighted at the prospect of a walk so early in her day, but the expectant little face dropped a bit at the first blackberry stop. She then had a whale of a time chasing rabbits in the slow trudge (for my part) up the steep field to get to the very top of my lane where, to her clear dismay, I started rummaging around in the hedgerows again. It was instantly noticeable how, at this greater altitude, there were many more berries to pick even than just outside my house. It's amazing what a difference a few metres can make. The one moment of excitement for Lily was when a group of walkers came by with a fellow dog, otherwise it was pretty dull stuff for her. I, meanwhile, was revelling in the simple pleasures of gathering fruits (despite the stinging nettles - still vibrant up here - and tiny thorns penetrating my blackened fingers from time to time). I noticed the tiny snails curled up on stem and leaf, the morning song of countless birds, the odd wasp sucking at a juicy berry, the cobwebs and tiny insects crawling over the fruit. The sun had burst through the morning mists and the air was still remarkably mild. 

Eventually my little black bag was bursting (taking care not to confuse the one full of dog poo with the one full of berries!) and I headed back down through the garden once more towards a cup of tea and slice of brown toast smeared with - you guessed it! - bramble jelly. Thus revived, I would then head back up the garden to collect more berries from my very own bramble patch near the vegetable garden. Indeed, the ultimate pleasure is to be able to pick these little beauties in my own back yard, and to know that it was worth resisting from cutting the brambles back before they had relinquished their black gold.


Now, I have a small confession to make: while I am happy to eat a blackberry off the bramble, I am less keen on them cooked in pies or crumbles (a sin, I am well aware, as an English person! Blame school dinners for that). No, for me the best way to enjoy the intensity of their flavour and colour, and to avoid dental aggravation, is in the simple longevity of a preserve and so, forthwith, I give you my Foolproof Recipe for Bramble Jelly:-

Gently rinse your blackberries in a sieve under a cold running tap and them leave to drip dry into a saucepan. Once dried off a bit, put them on the scales to see what weight you have.

Then put them into a large enough pan to distribute the heat evenly through the berries. Add about 30ml of water for each 450g of berries and place pan on a medium heat. Crush the berries with a potato masher when they are nicely heated and have turned from black to a beetrooty red.

Pour the mushed berries into the bag of a jelly strainer and allow them to drip (preferably overnight) into the container below the bag. 

When the fruit pulp is dry and no longer dripping, discard the contents of the jelly bag. Put the gloriously ruby coloured juice into a large saucepan on a medium heat and add 400g of jam sugar for low pectin fruits (I use Whitworth's quick setting jam sugar) and the juice of at least half a lemon for every 600ml of juice. Stir until the sugar has fully dissolved and then turn up the heat and insert a jam thermometer into the liquid. Boil until the thermometer shows 105 degrees C (220 degrees F) which usually takes 8-10 minutes. Meanwhile put a saucer into the freezer so that you can do a setting test when the jam has reached the required temperature (just to make sure!) - when you put a small amount of the hot syrupy liquid onto the cold plate it should cool quickly and form a skin when you run a finger through it. If this is refusing to happen, then you either need to turn up the heat or add a little more lemon juice.


Meanwhile, sterilise a couple of jam jars (I put them in the bottom oven of the Aga while the juice is boiling) and once the juice has reached setting point, pour it (preferably with the aid of a jam funnel) into the jar(s).

Cook's Note: 1.4kg (just over 31bs) of fruit should make about 600ml (just over an imperial - as opposed to an American - pint) of juice which in turn gives you two medium sized jars of jelly.

So there you go, the fruits of my labours! Hope you enjoy it as much as I do (and it goes without
saying that doing this with cultivated blackberries in a punnet from a supermarket gives neither the same satisfaction - nor the flavour). 


1 comment:

Nutty Gnome said...

Your bramble jelly looks good - although I have to confess to only making stuff that has a low faff content...and straining things overnight before doing another stage counts as faff to me!!!
I could swap you a chutney for a jelly if you like?! :-P

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