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My first August in Britain, so long ago, I was awed by the late summer’s gift of blackberries arrayed on spiky bramble vines in wastelands near our home. Where we lived then, there was a culvert that collected extra water from the runoff of uphill rain, and a lot of scrub and nettles and some rubbish, broken glass and beer cans, and the blackberries (and dewberries) grew madly there, and in the adjacent field you could climb into over a farmer’s gate.  I never could believe there were people who didn’t spend their free time picking this delicious and free fruit.  Free.  An incredible gift.

My mother-in-law was a great and inspired picker in her day.  She’d picked blackberries, and currants, as a child in the 30s for local jam makers, and they all received a pittance which to them as rural kids was huge and exciting.  She taught me to set out with a stick or umbrella to push thorny canes out of the way.  Once I went picking with my long-lost friend Simon, who was 6’4′; he commented, “the best ones are always just that small bit out of reach,” which definitely set the idea of relative truth in my short-person’s mind!  Another summer I went picking with a friend who always wears white t-shirts; she remained completely clean, a purple stain nowhere.  That’s a mystery and a puzzle to me, how she does it!  Every late summer / early autumn, there’s no getting enough of brambling, especially in glorious years like this one.

Blackberries: you first eat the delicious ones with the big “bobs”  (as my husband calls them) because they are too luscious not to.  You pick and pick until you can pick no more, and maybe if you make apple-blackberry crumble (yesterday with chestnut flour and cinnamon in the topping mix), or pie, or maybe you put bags in the freezer, maybe you make wine, maybe you make smoothies.  Many a year I’ve made jam, and curd, and this year with the seedy leftovers in the sieve (having chosen to remove the gritty seeds) I’ve begun a blackberry scrap-vinegar that’s already bubbling on our counter, threatening to overflow like a volcano of messy purple lava…  [postscript: I prematurely bottled that blackberry seed vinegar, and when I opened the bottle to aerate, it fizzed messily everywhere– which is preferable to a glass explosion but the message is: even if vinegary don’t prematurely seal in glass…]

When I make jam, I feel glad to have learned my basic method from my 1975 The Joy of Cooking– it’s been so foolproof and so adaptable to my efforts to mix fruits, occasionally to add spices.  It’s a recipe based on volume not weight, so somehow the visual allows an understanding of amounts.  Joy says, for example, for “Raspberry, Blackberry, Gooseberry, Loganbery or Elderberry Jam” that you match 4 cups of fruit with 3 cups of sugar.  I always go a little scant with the sugar, though not much, for it’s necessary for preserving this way and creating, especially in relatively loose-set jams, a kind of syrupy compote quality that a friend once romanticised as “French.”   I never use the sugar with added pectin– those jams to me are tight and unappealing–though I like to grate apples and lemon juice and a quince (“the pectin fruit”) if I were lucky enough to have one.  Sometimes I can’t resist simmering blackberries with a cinnamon stick.  Sometimes berries need a little liquid to begin the basic collapse; lately I’ve been using the tiniest splash of a fruit vinegar to amplify flavours and because sour can offset sweet.  It seems to work as a technique (and has an implication for the chutneys I make).    And while sometimes I feel jams are an excuse for sugar, and not necessarily ideal, I also try to use them, through the winter, as a store-cupboard item to use with cakes and desserts; as they are a sweet, they can replace sugar I’d use otherwise, with added flavour and festivity.

Many summers I made Blackberry Curd from a tattered,  yellow-paged paperback copy of The Penguin Book of Jams, Pickles and Chutneys from 1975.  David and Rose Mabey are the authors of this resource of a volume!  But after we moved, and I misplaced this sliver of a book, my mind just imagined the recipe had come from a Mabey, from Richard Mabey’s classic Food for Free, and this error of memory meant I could not for years find that perfect recipe, now immortalised  in the photograph below.  Nothing I found on the internet ever matched perfectly enough.  I cannot stress how simple and wonderful Blackberry Curd is, spread on a pancake, between layers of a plain cake, on a spoon or off a finger.  I love the woman in the picture too.  She would be my friend, I’m sure.

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