My earliest memory of foraging is picking blackberries with my sister and my father, from brambles on scrubland behind a supermarket in the town of Glastonbury, assisted by the man who lived in the hedge along with his pet bull (it was Glastonbury). We filled tubs and baskets, and not a single berry made it home as we scoffed the lot there and then; red faces, red hands, summer sun.
Most people’s first foraged food is the blackberry (Rubus fruticosus aggregate). There are many species of this plant, all with similar appearance and producing similar fruit, hence the lumping together under the ‘aggregate’ part of the name. They are a member of the Rosaceae family, a noble family that gives us many edible species – apples, cherries, rose hips, hawthorn, apricots, and many more.
They come into season around August – although it does depend on how wet and how hot the summer has been, a mix of the two being ideal – and are still to be found come autumn. The plant is a large tangle of long, thorny branches, often over two metres in length, with serrated leaves, and flowers that have five pink or white petals. The branches are extremely thorny, the plant reluctant to give up its fruit or to release the arm of an entangled forager, so gloves and long sleeves are the gear to wear.
They are, happily, as rich in goodness as they are in flavour. High in vitamin C, vitamin K, and anti-oxidants, they are one of the healthiest snacks nature has to offer.
As a medicine, blackberries have a long history. The ancient Greeks used them as a treatment for gout, and diseases of the mouth and throat. In England, it was said that they were a cure for ulcers, hernias, burns, and boils – although the treatment here involved passing under an arch of brambles rather than ingesting or applying any part of the plant. Blackberry tea was used as a treatment for dysentery.
Darker examples of the folklore associated with blackberries include the crown of thorns that Jesus Christ is said to have endured, as well as the blinding of Belleraphon, as punishment for riding Pegasus to Mount Olympus, in Greek mythology. It is also said that you should not pick blackberries after Michaelmas, as the devil has spat on them.
It is best to pick blackberries on a dry day, as they are prone to mould. Pick the fattest and ripest (the only sure way of testing ripeness is to eat them, so test regularly). They do not keep, being a haven for spores and yeasts, so they must be dealt with quickly once (if) you get them back to the kitchen. They freeze well, either fresh or cooked down with a little sugar for future crumbles. The range of culinary possibilities is huge; jams, jellies, fruit leathers, pies, wine, infusions, the list goes on.
The pairing of dark chocolate and blackberries here is a rich, fruity treat. Serve them warm with vanilla ice cream and blackberry coulis, maybe some toasted hazelnuts. They will store in an airtight container for up to five days.
Ingredients (makes 16 or so portions)
90g good quality dark chocolate
250g salted butter
4 free range eggs
200g granulated white sugar
200g Demerara sugar
70g cocoa powder
225g plain flour
200g blackberries (gently rinsed and allowed to dry)
Preheat your oven to 170ºc.
Cut the butter into cubes, break up the chocolate, and melt them gently together in a metal or glass mixing bowl over a pan of hot water (don’t let the water touch the bottom of the bowl, nor allow the water to boil).
Once melted, add the white sugar and Demerara sugar, and mix thoroughly.
Add the beaten eggs and mix through.
Sieve the flour and cocoa together into your mixture, stirring all the time to ensure they’re completely combined – the mixture will start to get quite stiff here, so brace yourself.
Pour the mixture into a greased and lined baking tray (20cm by 30cm or thereabouts will give you the right thickness), and spread out with a spatula making sure it’s right in the corners and edges.
Dot the blackberries evenly over the mixture, and push down into it a little with your finger.
Place in the oven and bake for around 20 minutes, or until a skewer pushed into the brownie comes out almost clean (you want them to be a bit gooey, and they’ll continue to cook a little once taken from the oven).
Remove from the oven and allow to cool a little. Using the edges of the greaseproof paper, lift the whole thing out of the tray and onto a chopping board. Cut into 16 pieces (or as many/few as your appetite demands), and serve or store.
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