Reading the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty as a child, it made perfect sense to me that the good fairy created an encircling thicket of brambles and briars around the castle, to shield Princess Aurora from intruders while she slept for a hundred years. When my brothers and I set off blackberry-picking on late summer days we dressed head to toe in thorn-proof coats, gloves and wellies, no matter how hot the weather.
We would race off on bikes to our favourite, top-secret spot (along with the rest of the village). The boys would always get the prime spots because I could never pedal as fast as them, and I also had the worst bike with no gears. It was always a pleasure, though, never a chore; to us it felt like a Famous Five adventure being out alone, eating as much as we wanted and getting praised for taking home a much-reduced basket of berries. Our purple-stained hands and faces always gave away what we’d been up to.
The blackberries would be stewed with windfall apples or stored in the freezer for future blackberry-and-apple pies and crumbles. If it was a bumper year there’d also be a jar or two of bramble jelly. Highly scented, if a little soapy in flavour, it was a welcome treat on a warm scone in those first few days of September when the chill of autumn is in the air and you have to face up to the reality of a new school term and relentless studying until Christmas.
There was added drama one year, when the dog was rushed to the vet with blood all round her mouth. We waited with bated breath, but luckily it was just bramble juice, not a wound from those proverbial thorns.
In the Greek myth of Bellerophon and Pegasus, Bellerophon ends up being blinded by a bramble bush after Zeus sends him tumbling back to Earth for the temerity of approaching Mount Olympus. Zeus unseats him by sending a gadfly to sting winged Pegasus – and gadflies, more commonly known to us as horseflies, can be another hazard of blackberrying.
I’m always amazed at the speed brambles grow in the small field at the end of our garden, giving it a rather forlorn air. It’s no wonder they have long been used in Christian art to symbolise spiritual neglect or ignorance. You can also see from the pattern of track marks on the ground how valuable they are to small animals for their cover and protection. We certainly have a thriving rabbit colony; in the Richard Adam’s novel Watership Down, (a book I loved and read over and over again until I saw Martin Rosen’s terrifying 1978 film of it) Blackberry is the tenacious “clever rabbit” among the original group migrating from Sandleford Warren, the one who comes up with innovative (for rabbits) ideas, such as the floating raft.
When our own children were little and we lived in London, weekends in the country with granny and grandpa were a real treat, especially when they involved a spot of blackberry-picking. For the grandchildren it was a lovely way to spend a few special hours with their grandparents, (it was the one activity I was never included in) and they would set off, bags at the ready, chatting away about anything and everything, any hint of shyness long forgotten. There was always a bit of drama: something involving cows in a field or someone getting caught in barbed wire, but because granny was in charge it ended on a good note with a cup of tea and lots of chocolate biscuits.
If you are going blackberrying this year, remember two golden rules: first, do not pick anything lower than the height of a small dog, as it may have been peed on! Secondly, keep a look out for the devil, since according to a tale based on the New Testament you should not eat blackberries after 10 October or Old Michaelmas Day. The legend is that Archangel Michael had an enormous battle with Lucifer, who in the aftermath was expelled from heaven, fell from the skies and landed painfully in a blackberry bush. He was so angry, he cursed the fruit and scorched them with his fiery breath; then, being a bad loser, he spat and stamped on them.
Blackberry and Apple Fool
300g Bramley apples100g blackberries, plus more for decorating 150ml double cream 10g-15g sugar
This is a great way of making a few blackberries go much further.
Peel, core and roughly chop the apples, place in a pan with a couple of tablespoons of water. Cover and cook for 5 mins, add the blackberries and cook for another 5 mins or until the apples have collapsed into a fluffy mass. Add sugar to taste. Set aside to cool. Whip the cream until it just holds its shape and then gently fold into the cooled fruit. Spoon into small glasses and chill before serving. Serve with shortbread biscuits.
Lydia Brownlow was a cookery editor at Good Housekeeping Magazine and a contributor to The Daily Beast. Latterly she has been inspiring children to cook. More info at:lydiabrownlow.com