~ Posted by Samantha Weinberg, September 21st 2012
As the sun disappears over the equator tomorrow, leaving only fading memories of a summer that, in Britain, never quite was, there is one consolation: blackberries. While it has been a bad year for domesticated fruit—insipid strawberries, hard, sour apples, plum trees devoid of plums—thanks to last week's late burst of sunshine, the brambles in this corner of west Wiltshire are burgeoning. So yesterday, after changing into a dark T-shirt (blackberry stains are all but irreversible) I tucked a large tin under my arm and set out into the golden afternoon.
If there is an art to picking blackberries I haven't learnt it. For two hours, I shuffled along hedge after hedge, pricking my fingers, getting my hair snared in bramble fronds and my tummy stung by the nettles that seem to guard every good outcrop. Slowly, the tin filled with blackberries, some ripe and squishy, others still a little hard and red. When my arms were aching and my fingers and lips stained indigo, I closed the tin and headed home.
There are quite a few things one can do with blackberries—quite apart from eating them with cream—but my favourites are blackberry jelly (the eating-on-toast-or-with-cold-meat rather than the wobbly kind) and blackberry vodka.
I tackled the booze first, dividing a litre of vodka between two large Kilner jars, into each of which I added 100g of caster sugar and 300g of berries, which I shook and stirred until the sugar dissolved. Then I tucked them away in a dark corner under the stairs to steep. Strictly speaking, one should get them out every four of five days for a shake, but I tend to forget and the results, when I unearth the bottles just before Christmas to strain out the blackberries (which make a lovely boozy pudding, with a spoon of Greek yoghurt and a sprinkling of smashed honeycomb) are always delicious. Most years I make all sorts of hedgerow gins and vodkas to give as presents—sloe, damson, bullace and rosehip—but I always try to keep a couple of bottles of blackberry, which we drink ice cold before lunch, or glug from a flask on a New Year's walk.
Next I turned to the jelly. The process has a rhythm to it that is strangely comforting. I washed the fruit, then simmered it with water (900g of fruit to 100ml water) until it was soft. Then I erected the jelly stand, a collapsible wire pyramid that I got a couple of years ago, which supports the jelly bag, a tight mesh cloth through which the juice will strain over night. This can, of course, be done using a muslin-lined sieve and a saucepan, but the jelly stand is one of those pieces of kit that you never knew you needed until you have one. At this time of year, it lives in the corner of the kitchen and my days are lulled by the sound of juice dripping slowly into a deep bowl.
This morning, I measured the juice and heated it in a pan with sugar (400g of warmed sugar for every 550ml of juice) and the juice of a lemon, essential for the pectin it needs to set. Once the sugar had melted, I brought it to a roiling boil, continually testing it until it reached setting point (to determine this, I dabbed a blob on a pre-chilled plate, then drew a cross in the sticky mixture with my finger; the jelly is ready when the two swipes don't bleed into each other). I poured the thickening liquid into sterilised jars, closed them and left them to cool, after which I labelled each jar.
Autumn may be here and winter on its way, but even when the blackberries have shrivelled and blackened on the hedges, there will remain—in bottles under the stairs and jars in the kitchen—just enough of the summer to savour until the sun comes north again next March.
Samantha Weinberg is assistant editor of Intelligent Life. Her interview with David Attenborough appears in the current issue