Making the Most of Blackberries

At this time of year, there are blackberries to be found all over the place, from the slightly run down corner of the car park in town, in the country park or in the hedgerows around the farm. Food for free. Who can resist?

Blackberry Picking

There’s a certain nostalgia attached to blackberry picking. I always imagine a picture lifted straight from a 1960s Ladybird book with a happy family, wicker basket in hand wandering along a country lane on a sunny autumnal afternoon. Possibly with the prospect of a picnic at the end, complete with red gingham tablecloth and bottles of pop.

The reality of our blackberry is picking is slightly less romantic when Beth and I set out laden with containers to pick blackberries for Beth to make into Blackberry Gin. We lean precariously over ditches, stand on tiptoe to reach high branches and debate the lowest height of a pickable blackberry (answer – no lower than a large dog can cock his leg). Luckily, there’s also an unruly bit of hedge on the garden boundary with just enough blackberries for me to pop out with an enamelled basin and pick for the kitchen.

blackberry tart

Blackberry Tart

Blackberries bridge summer and autumn beautifully. Used like any other soft fruit they can be heaped into bowls, piled atop pavlovas or mixed with autumn raspberries to top an autumnal tart or used for making this simple no-churn ice cream, replacing the raspberry puree with blackberry puree. On cooler days, blackberry filled crumble, betty or pie sitting in a pool of yellow custard make a warming pudding.

hat made with wool dyed with blackberries and brambles

Natural Dyeing with Blackberries

But blackberries aren’t just for eating. Did you know that you can use the stalks and the berries for dyeing yarn and fabric? This hat was knitted with yarn dyed with brambles and blackberries; it’s surprising how many different colours you can get by using different mordants and modifers.

Making the most of blackberries - instructions for dyeing, preserving, cooking

If you’re looking for something different to do with blackberries, perhaps because you’ve already made blackberry jam and had your fill of blackberry crumble and apple and blackberry pie, take a look at this little booklet Making the Most of Blackberries, which has more ideas for using blackberries.

the edible hedge in September

autumn fruits

In September, the edible hedge and all the other hedges around the fields are filled with berries and fruits. It is certainly one of the best months of all for foraging. The blackberries are in their prime just now, the rosehips and hawthorn berries are ripe, wild pears and crab apples are ready to use and the sloes are almost soft enough to pick.

edible hedge jelly print

Even the foliage can be used for jelly printing.

Mostly though, I’ve been picking blackberries. They’ll only be usable for another couple of weeks so I’m making the most of them. We’ve finished picking blackberries for Slamseys Gin, so now I can just wander along the hedgerow with a couple of containers, picking as I please. We eat them fresh and unadorned by the handful, mix them with autumn fruiting raspberries or throw them in a saucepan with a sprinkling of sugar and heat them long enough for the juices to run but not so long that they cook and fall apart. A dash of Blackberry Gin is added sometimes or a little cream. We’ve feasted on Blackberry Ice Cream, Blackberry Fool, cocktails with Blackberry Gin, a Blackberry Slice (from The Great British Farmhouse Cookbook) that’s like a Bakewell Tart made with a meltingly soft shortbread base, used them for Uncooked Porridge (sometimes in a jar and sometimes not)  and there are a few jars of Blackberry & Crab Apple Jelly (always preferable to jam with its pesky blackberry pips) lined up on the pantry shelf ready to spread on warm scones and pancakes on dark winter evenings.

My favourite preserve though is Bramble Spread. A delicious, utterly blackberry intense spread. Not solid and sliceable like a Quince Cheese, but half way between a butter and a cheese; more concentrated than jam and jelly because it’s little more than a sweet puree. Glorious on toast or scones. There’s no faffing around with jam thermometers or testing for set, no worrying whether I’ve made a super firm set jam that can be prised from the jar in one rubbery mass or whether I didn’t boil it for long enough and have a sauce to pour straight from the jar. Even if the Bramble Spread sets too firmly, I just call it Bramble Cheese and slice it to eat with cold meat or cheese.

To make Bramble Spread

800 g blackberries
800 g sugar

In a large pan, slowly heat the blackberries with 300 grammes of sugar and 120 ml of cold water and gently cook until the berries are soft.

Push through a sieve to get rid of the pips, then put the juice and pulp back in the (clean) pan with the remaining 500 grammes of sugar.

Over a low heat, stir to dissolve the sugar and simmer (not rapidly boil) for 20 minutes, still stirring.

Pour into ramekins or small jars, cover and label. Best eaten after two or three months during which time it will thicken a little more.

in my kitchen October

Every month bloggers join in with Celia to write about what’s happening in their kitchen. This is a relaxed group (no rules or schedules or invited members only) where we get the chance to peek into everyone’s kitchens to see what they’re up to. It’s bit like dropping in for a sociable chat and a cup of coffee. So, sit yourself down at the virtual kitchen table and help yourself to a biscuit.

In my kitchen this October …

blackberry trifle recipe

… one thing leads to another. It’s a busy time on the farm as the new wheat crop is planted and Bill has spent several days rolling. As this is an incredibly boring job, a packed lunch with something a bit different from the usual sandwich and an apple makes a welcome change, so I made some gingerbread to slip in. As usual, the last bit of gingerbread lingered in the tin untouched so I used it to make a trifle together with some of the blackberries that we’d picked from the hedges and the dregs of a bottle of Blackberry Gin.

blackberry mess

Then, as I had egg whites left over from making the custard, I made some meringues, which a couple of days later I plopped into a glass with some whipped cream, more blackberries and blackberry puree to make a Bramble Mess.

bramble cheese

As usual, I picked far too many blackberries so used the last of them to make Bramble Cheese which is like a blackberry version of membrillo. The blackberries are cooked with a little water and sugar, then sieved and the puree cooked with more sugar until it’s thickened. Turned out from its mould, it can be cut into small squares to eat like a sweet or eaten with cheese or cold meat.

In my kitchen this October …

2013 harvest bread
… the first bread made with wheat from 2013 harvest. It always takes me a few batches to adjust to fresh wheat; some years I can make loaves with 80:20 home milled wholegrain flour to commercial white flour but this year it looks more like 60:40. I need to do a bit more experimenting to make sure the loaves aren’t too heavy and dense.

In my kitchen this October …

retro milkshake maker

As the seasons change, so does the equipment in my kitchen. In summer, the ice cream maker is usually hauled out of the cupboard and when the kitchen gets unbearably hot, the aga is switched off and the electric toaster and kettle are searched out, dusted down and brought into action. Back in 1999, while on holiday in Australia, we stopped for a memorable lunch in Gulgong . Memorable for the children because of the milkshakes served in ice cold metal beakers and memorable for me because I left my bag containing our passports under the table and didn’t realise until we were an hour and a half down the road. It was a long day. Back home, I found a similar milkshake maker and we spent the summer of 1999 recreating those delicious milkshakes.

Now the children are grown up, the milkshake maker has languished in the cupboard, but this year Ruth was home and has resurrected it, so that we’ve doubled the order to the milkman and drunk milkshakes all summer. My favourite? 1960s style Iced Coffee made with Camp coffee. A retro drink for a retro style milkshaker maker. Now that the apples are ripe, the juicer is in action most days and milkshakes are being replaced by apple juice or purple blackberry & apple juice, so the milkshake maker will get put away. What’s your favourite milkshake?

In my kitchen this October …

view from the kitchen window
… the view from the kitchen window. Not much different to last month.

Why not share your kitchen this month? Pop over to Fig Jam & Lime Cordial to find out how to join in and to see what’s happening in Celia’s kitchen and others around the world.









an edible hedgerow


Like most Essex farms, our fields are bounded by hedgerows that combine with woods and ponds to form the traditional patchwork of countryside. In the last century, this country lost miles of hedgerows as farmers, fuelled by grants and government backing, enlarged their fields to accommodate modern agricultural machinery and increase production. Now, in this world of plentiful and cheap global food production together with an environmental awareness of bio-diversity, British farmers are replanting hedgerows and planting millions of trees each year. Despite this, lazy journalists still report that hedges are being ripped out and trees felled. In fact, we can’t remove hedges and trees without permission and hedge cutting can only be carried out at certain times of the year.

Surprisingly, our farm looks very much the same as a map we have from 1895 apart from Grove Field (which was two fields on the map) and Dovehouse and Barn fields are smaller now (due to the by-pass). As well as the hedges around individual fields, we have one hedge that runs a kilometre and a half across the farm, from the back of the barns through Little Forest field, Great Forest field, Grove Field and The Ley. There are gaps for gateways into fields, but otherwise it runs unbroken beside the ditch that collects water from the fields and channels it down to the lower stream that eventually links to the River Ter.

Predominantly hawthorn and blackthorn, the hedge also contains hazel, field maple and holly. Dog rose and brambles send out long arching branches and old man’s beard threads its way along the hedge with ivy and elder pushing through in places. Majestic oak trees stand high in the hedge along with ash trees; crab apple trees and whispering alder trees poke above the hedgeline and in one stretch, elm regenerates only to die off after a few years.

Not only does this hedge provide cover for small mammals, birds and insects but it’s a very handy hedge for foraging. Although it probably wasn’t planted as an edible hedge all those centuries ago, it’s certainly evolved into one. From the first violets that flower on the banks of the ditch, through the froth of May flowers and elderflowers to the nuts and berries that are ripening now, it’s the best place on the farm to forage for free food.

apple and blackberry dessert

This week I’ve been picking blackberries from the edible hedge and have combined some with windfall Bramley apples from the garden. Lightly spiced apples topped with blackberry puree. Just add a spoonful of yoghurt for a virtuous weekday pudding.