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There is something wonderful about coming back from a country walk with a harvest of free food.
A walk in the country is usually good enough by itself but if you can add a purpose and a reward it can make the perfect day.
Towards the end of August and in early September the hedgerows are a natural larder, and one of the most bountiful and delicious free fruit of all is the far from humble blackberry.
Even in towns and cities there are usually wild blackberries to be found. Try the canal towpath or that hedgerow that borders your local waste ground.
Sadly Britain has lost hundreds of thousands of miles of hedgerows over the last 50 years.
The Northamptonshire poet John Clare hated his agricultural work, enclosing the huge open field of his local countryside by planting hedge borders.
But he did appreciate the rich wild fruit those hedges bought forth.
"And there to pluck the blackberry, and there to reach the sloe,
How joyously and happily would love thy partner go,
Then rest when weary on a bank, where not a grassy blade
Had e’er been bent by trouble’s feet, and love thy pillow made."
Today those ancient hedges are some of our richest reserves of nature, yet modern farming is still grubbing them out. However there are still enough left to provide rich pickings for we wild free food foragers.
Wild bramble blackberries are usually smaller than the often imported fruit you get in tiny expensive punnets in the supermarket.
However the best of the wild varieties are usually more delicious and can be picked when they are perfectly ripe and eaten when they are at their very best and perfectly fresh. You can always taste before you pick — try that at Tesco.
The shiny black fruit grow on brambles, typically found in woodland, hedges and waste ground.
If you are planning a country walk at this time of year plan ahead in case you come across a good patch of blackberries.
Take some tough gloves, perhaps rubber. Not only will the juice stain your hands and clothing but the brambles are covered in many sharp thorns.
Wear tough trousers, not shorts, and a long-sleeved shirt. These warnings are even more important for children.
The best blackberries are those which have grown on plants in direct sunlight.
Sod’s Law says the best blackberries will be found high up, out of reach or in difficult positions.
Here’s a really important warning. Only pick berries above knee height which will not have been splashed by a dog cocking its leg or by rain splashed mud. Don’t pick from bushes near traffic.
Also watch out for maggots that can sometimes have beaten you to the fruit. Avoid too any fruit showing signs of rot or fungus attack.
Choose only clean full and shiny black fruits. If they are still red or purple they aren’t ripe and they never will be once picked. Ripe blackberries will come off the plant easily.
Carry your harvest home in a rigid plastic box, not a soft bag which will squash the ripe fruit.
At home, soak them for a good half hour in water just before you intend to use them, and then rinse well before eating or using them in cooking.
They will keep unwashed in the fridge for a few days. They also freeze well, either raw and whole, as a puree or in a pie mix with cooking apple.
A bumper harvest can be turned into home-made jam or bramble jelly. The jelly is perfect for those who don’t like the pips that come with blackberry jam but making it is fiddly and requires a special jelly bag.
My own favourite is to mix whole blackberries and diced cooking apples flavoured with sugar to taste and a touch of lemon juice.
I make the mix into a batch of pies that will freeze perfectly and keep me in delicious desserts throughout the winter.
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