One of the key principles, for me, of “healthy eating” is the inclusion of foods that are locally raised, grown and sourced. Not only is this good for the climate (think, fewer transport considerations) and local businesses, it’s also a way of connecting back with the seasons. Seasonal eating reminds us that we are a part of something bigger: a natural cycle of birth, growth, maturity and, yes, rest in which Nature’s food chains take centre stage.
And that connection with our environment, the space that immediately surrounds us, is reinforced when we notice the wild foods that, in exchange for a little effort, are available to us as the seasons unwind.
Yes, I’m talking “foraging”.
First of all, let me just say that I am a novice forager. I don’t forage often simply because I don’t really feel confident in my knowledge of what to look for, how to make sure the wild foods are safe, and then what to do with the produce I gather.
Whilst much of my knowledge has come from writers such as Robin Harford (his website eat weeds offers a lot of information about edible and medicinal plants), I have yet to participate in one of the foraging courses that are available. Yes, it’s a Covid thing.
But, there’s one (generally) safe place to start a foraging adventure: blackberries.
These delightful little gems can be found nestling in amongst the hedgerows or, in my case, residing at the very bottom of my garden in a patch that I prefer to describe as “wilded” rather than “neglected”. Their appearance, from August towards the end of the summer, offers both the possibility of culinary delights and an excuse to delay clearing the scrubby patch until the berries have been harvested.
One thing that stands out with wild blackberries is their appearance: compared to their generously-proportioned, beehive-type, counterparts that can be found sitting on the supermarket shelves, wild blackberries appear stubbier, rounder, less…thuggish. We may be used to the shiny black supermarket delights, yet in Nature, the shiny appearance indicates a berry that is yet to reach full juiciness. When they’re ready, that shine mutes down to a matt-midnight blue that shouts, “pick me now”: any delay will see them become over-soft, easy not only to pick but to squash and lose.
When the first berries appear – and for me, this is usually on the sunnier tracks of my daily dog walk – I make a mental note to turf out a (BPA-free) plastic food storage box (an old ice-cream carton will do too), keep an eye on the weather and pay more attention to the brambles, waiting for the sign. Then, when they’re ready, I gather and forage, returning to my kitchen with enough fruit for my culinary needs.
A couple of reminders:
- while it’s so tempting to pick every berry, it’s far nicer to leave some behind for others. This may be other walkers or ramblers who’ve also spotted the impending bounty or it could be the little creatures that depend on berries for life support, and
- tempting though it is, avoid sampling the berries before they’ve been washed. Most hedgerows are visited by little, and not-so-little, creatures. And where’s there’s creatures, there’s toileting habits to think about…enough said, I think.
Still, I digress: back to the kitchen.
One of the (many) joys of blackberries is that they work well in sweet or savoury dishes where their fruity yet spicy flavours add an extra-dimension to puds, cakes, and sauces. They are perhaps best known for pairing well with apple – apple and blackberry crumble is a favourite in our house – but they also work well with vanilla, lemon, almonds, peaches, white chocolate, red meats such as beef, venison or duck, and goat’s cheese.
So what do I use them for? Yes, cake, always cake, but there are other ways to use them:
- crush the berries together with a little vanilla bean paste then spoon over natural Greek yoghurt. If a little crunch is welcome, scatter over a few flaked and toasted almonds. This makes a light pudding or, if preferred, can be used to top overnight oats
- as the weather turns cooler, poached fruit brings a little warmth: simmer blackberries with ground cinnamon, a little sweetener (I prefer honey though you might enjoy maple syrup), and a squeeze of lemon juice until the berries just burst open. Serve the syrupy concoction warm (pancakes, anyone?) or chill it for up to a day
- transition summer fruit or herb flavoured water into autumn: crush the berries with a spoon then add to the water and allow to infuse before drinking
- pair with grilled halloumi for a delightful salad that fits well with late summer sunshiney days: there’s a lovely recipe here or, if you’d rather experiment with a salsa, add sliced blackberries to finely diced cucumber and red onion, shredded mint and lime juice then serve with grilled halloumi or a chicken salad
- galettes: like a mini open pie or even pizza, these marry the flavours of blackberries and lemon with pastry that can soak up the delicious fruity juices. Sounds inviting? Check out Nigella’s recipe here
- or perhaps a cake would be more attractive: I love blackberry with lemon as a change from blackberry and apple. Find the recipe I’ve been enjoying this autumn here: I tweaked it to use just blackberries and baked it as mini loaves (they make delicious little gifts or can hide in the freezer for ’emergencies’); I also topped it with a little lemon drizzle (using a little granulated sugar stirred into fresh lemon juice, so it becomes opaque and gloopy) for a extra hit of tartness. The photo above shows them in their gloriousness, the photo below shows them served with blackberry-studded Greek yoghurt, a scattering of berries and, out of shot, two teaspoons for deliciously slow sharing
- make a glaze to brush over chicken or a tray of vegetables before roasting: mix together equal quantities of berries and balsamic vinegar then simmer until reduced and sticky and use as desired
I could tell you about the nutritional content and value of these lovely little seasonal gems but I won’t: the real joy lies in connecting with Nature and its abundance.
I hope you enjoy autumn’s harvest.