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 last blackberries

It’s been a good year for blackberries here at Slamseys Farm. Each year I follow the ripening of the bushes around the fields, starting in early August with the first small bush in Great Forest Field to the last weeks of September when I walk to the far end of the farm to the thicket in the corner of Gardeners Field to pick the dark, purple coloured berries.

According to British folklore, Old Michaelmas Day on 10th October is the last day that blackberries should be picked as that’s the day the devil spits on them. Whether you believe that or not, by now the blackberries are coming to an end and although there are still plenty of unripe berries, many of the ripe berries are too soft to pick.

As a consequence, we’ve been making the most of the last blackberries. Beth only picks blackberries for her gin when they’re at their best, which means that anything I pick in October is for me!

blackberry vinegar 2015

As well as a last flurry of making blackberry puddings and cakes, the pantry is now stocked with bottles of Blackberry Vinegar. I add a dash of Blackberry Vinegar to gravy when it needs a bit of a buck up, slosh a little over roasted vegetables for the last five minutes of cooking to make a glaze or use it in salad dressings. Diluted with soda water, Blackberry Vinegar makes a surprisingly refreshing long drink, being less sweet and cloying than some cordials. In winter I dilute Blackberry Vinegar with an equal measure of boiling water and drink it when I have a sore throat when the rasp of the vinegar on the back of my throat seems to override the pain. Strangely, the rest of the family prefer medicated throat lozenges instead.

blackberry dyed wool

Another batch of blackberries went into the dyepot with the berries simmered in water for an hour and then left to stand overnight. Next day the blackberries were strained out leaving a gorgeous deep purple liquid to which I added alum mordanted wool and simmered for 50 minutes, resulting in a dusky plum coloured yarn. Interestingly (well, I think it’s interesting) I put one hank of yarn into a jar with a little of the dye and added wood ash water (read how to make it here ) and the wool changed to a green brown colour. I don’t think these wools will be very light fast, so it will be interesting to see what colours they fade to.

cotton dyed with blackberries

There were a few blackberries left over so I used them to do some bundle dyeing. I’m not a great fan of bundle dyeing as I usually get a rather grungy looking result so I tried using only blackberries on this sample. I spread the blackberries on the cloth, folded and rolled it up tightly and then wrapped it in cling film and hung it above the simmering dye pot (as I extracted the dye from the blackberries above). I left it overnight and then unwrapped it.

bundle dyeing brambles

In this sample I also used leaves and coins, which makes an interesting pattern, though I prefer the pure blackberry sample.

blackberry vinegar recipe

Last of all, I couldn’t resist a little jelly printing with the leaves. Ruth and I are thinking of running a Blackberry Day in The Barley Barn next September, incorporating some or all of these processes, which might be fun. I think we shall have to include a taste of Slamseys Blackberry Gin somehow. Perhaps we could finish with a Blackberry Cocktail. I must start working on that one now.