That’s my blood darkening my hands but it’s not as bad as it looks. There’s probably blood on my shins too but I don’t have time to look. Nature guards her treasures well; she’s red in tooth, claw and thorn.
I’m not sure why I’m pushing deeper into the fringe of this bramble, particularly since it’s between a gorse bush and a holly tree. Those plump, shiny blackberries, just beyond my reach, which are nodding enticingly to me in the late afternoon sun, are surely no better than the plump, shiny blackberries within leisurely reach just yards further along the path. But they do look good; tasty, juicy and if I just lean a little further into bush — ignoring the pricking in my chest, the biting on my shins and the snagging of my shirt sleeves — they are mine. It’s easier to walk into a blackberry bush than walk out again. Those thorns are hooked backwards towards the root, an arrangement which helps the plant to climb but which also makes escape from its clutches increasingly difficult and painful the more you pull.
My neighbour goes out with a bowl and a smile claiming that blackberries are “free food”. They’re not free. They’re paid for with blood and suffering. At least they are when I go out collecting.
I straighten up from the stretching. Wincing from muscle pain and lacerations, I rip myself backwards out of the tangle, dropping the handful of hard-won treasures into an ice-cream tub tucked deep into the canvas shoulder bag that’s bumping against my side. The haul is good so far. When I started out at the foot of the hill berries seemed to be drumming and rolling in the empty bottom of the box for a long time, but the cache is now deep enough that new additions arrive noiselessly. I need about a kilo of fruit today and I’m about two thirds of the way to achieving that. It’s a satisfying stage; past the half-way mark so most of the work is done but still with space to bring in more of these glorious black berries. I hate to see things go to waste and this year I’m going to collect and preserve as much of this wild harvest as I can. For the first time in my life I’m going to make jam. Enough jam to see me deep into the winter.
Pausing to release the kinks from my stiff back, I gaze out across the valley through a golden early-September haze that softens the view of North Cornwall. This path between medieval fields rises from the village to the rim of the moorland plateau. It looks down and out across hills, fields and woods to the distant coast. A milky sun is out there, now almost directly to the west, lighting up a curve in the far off river estuary and a silver sliver of the Celtic Sea beyond. Swallows are skimming the warm air, scooping up insects as they fatten for the flight from autumn. There’s the faintest hint of garden bonfire on the air.
And autumn is coming. You can feel it.
When I was young you’d have to be on your toes to get the best of the blackberry crop because so many other villains were desperate to get their stained and grubby hands on them. The trick was to know where the best bushes were, visit them often to watch for the berries ripening, and hope that no-one else got to them first. You had to get in quick or lose out. When we lived in Ireland we employed grandpa’s loop-topped walking stick to hook down the out-of-reach extremities of the bramble crop. It meant we could reach the parts that other foragers could not.
Humanity had a complicated relationship with the bramble in those days. Through most of the year we would curse them, slash them, grub them out and generally detest them. Then for one choice month and a half we would worship them, often travelling miles to visit a good one.
Nowadays the competition for wild blackberries is almost non-existent. I’m not sure why that is because they are very good for you and in the late summer they are everywhere and free. I saw blackberries for sale in the supermarket the other day — a couple of quid for a 150g punnet. Outside that self same shop the hedge around the car park was festooned with ripe and succulent blackberries, begging to be picked and looking dejectedly at their plastic wrapped imported cousins from Mexico, Guatemala and Kenya. According to the industry group, British Summer Fruits, an amazing £51 million was spent by customers on supermarket blackberries alone last year. Maybe people aren’t so much buying a product as they’re buying convenience. The roadside stall belonging to a farm at the top of my village is selling field-gathered mushrooms in much the same way. Wild mushrooms are everywhere, easy to identify and literally right there at your feet, but folk just seem to want to buy them.
Looking at my bloodied and stained fingers now though, maybe it makes better sense. I’m picking stray thorns out of my fingertips. Constellations of tiny scabs and wet scratches are scattered across my bare forearms. It would look to a casual observer as if I’d been mauled by a wildcat but only because the blood is mingled with dark red smears of juice so it looks like a lot more of my essential body fluids have been spilled. In reality I’m not so much bloodstained as blooded and stained.
As I say, this is the first time I’ve planned to make jam but I have done my research before coming out. A substance known as pectin is needed to make it set properly and that comes in the more bitter fruits. One source tells me tossing in a few slightly unripe berries will help boost the pectin levels and therefore help the setting. This I am doing… as well as a few other things. I’m taking the established advice but I’ve also come up with a few ideas of my own. Jam may have been made successfully in Britain for the thick end of 500 years but that won’t stop me coming up with my own completely unfounded theories about how to make it better.
For instance I’ve decided (from what feels like past experience) that blackberries picked after dull wet weather are probably juicer but less tasty than those picked on a sunny day. Therefore I’ve decided, in my own infinite wisdom, that the perfect blackberry will have formed and ripened after a shower of rain has helped it swell and a full day or two of subsequent sun has boosted its natural sugars and flavours. So I’ve come out picking at the end of a bright sunny afternoon a couple of days after the bushes have had a bit of a watering.
Also, because this year has brought forth such a healthy crop, I can afford to be picky about the blackberries I use. Rather than plucking from every bush, I’m flavour-testing each new one I come on because some are definitely more tasty than others. There are apparently over 400 microspecies of wild blackberry in the UK alone so it seems obvious that many of the differences in flavour are due to more than just sun and rain. Working my way along this path I’m eating a berry or two from every new bush, by turns rejecting an entire stretch for its insipid unpleasantness or getting inordinately excited about discovering a particularly flavoursome crop. The unfortunate side-effect of this tasting is that I’ve eaten far too many blackberries and I’m starting to feel a little queasy. I’m now at the stage of tasting and spitting… unless they’re particularly nice examples.
But on I go, focused and fighting for every prize. The tub in the shoulder bag is filling quickly and because I don’t need to hold it I can use two hands to pluck at the fruits where they’re most plentiful. I can now tell quickly if the blackberry is ripe enough by the amount of resistance it gives when being pulled. If it falls away too easily I let it drop without a second look; it’s over-ripe, the core will have turned from clean white to musty brown and it’s starting to go off. If it holds on too tightly I let it go; it hasn’t ripened enough yet, it might come away with a short section of the spiny stem and calyx and the time and effort tugging this one free could be better spent on the next one. There is, it seems, a perfect and detectable amount of tenacity displayed by the brightest and best of the brambles. This isn’t scavenging for survival, this is foraging for quality fruit.
The tub is full to the brim as I reach the end of this section of the path. I have what I need and turn for home. There’s a wide smile on my face and not just because I’ve got food for free. I’m sure it chimes with an inherited folk memory and is, in itself, a thing which just feels right; it’s a road down which humanity has travelled since it was a breed of hunter gatherers. Foraging for wild food at this time of year is part of the timeless instinct of preparation for winter, particularly when that food going to be preserved to keep you going through the lean months. The same is true of gathering, sawing and splitting wild timber to feed the fireplace against the cold and dark. It feels right because it is right. Fair enough, there’s practically no danger of me dying of cold and starvation as the dark season settles on the northern hemisphere but I still feel like I’ve failed the autumn if I haven’t taken up Nature’s offer of help. It feels rude and ungrateful.
It’s twilight in the garden and the kitchen light is on. I’ve carefully and thoroughly washed the empty jars I’ll need and, guided by the advice I’ve read, they’re now in the oven being baked dry and sterilised. The largest of my saucepans is on a medium heat and heaped with a layered combination of washed blackberries and sugar. I’ve squeezed the juice of a lemon into the mix and, because I’ve read that lemon peel is high in pectin, I’ve gashed the empty shell of the fruit with a knife and dropped it into the pan to aid the cooking process.
Now nervous and excited, I put some music on. Beethoven’s sixth symphony, the Pastorale, which has been a soundtrack to my dreams of the countryside since I was a young boy.
Stirring at this high-piled stage is a careful process. One or two berries escape onto the hob top but they’re soon recaptured. It’s surprising how quickly the mound of fruit starts melting to juice and settling into the pan. It’s a thick-walled pan and it warms through evenly, but I just keep stirring. As the temperature rises the aroma bleeds out into the kitchen. Fruity and syrupy it stirs memories of mother’s jam-making exploits when I was a boy. We didn’t have much money. I strongly suspect home produce was more of a necessity for her than it is for me.
Mother made jam with a traditional 50/50 mix of fruit and sugar. I’m making a slightly less rich version with two parts sugar to three parts fruit. The simple concoction is steaming but not yet boiling. With a wooden spoon I’m squashing berries against the side of the pan and occasionally pummelling the husks of lemon peel as they surface and sink, acid yellow in the deep sweet purple. The sugar is dissolved and the mixture is runny and lumpy.
As the contents of the pan get hotter the alchemy begins. Bubbling begins slowly and can be easily stirred down, but it gains insistence and persistence until I’m managing a gently boiling froth that’s continuously rolling around the spoon as I stir. The berries have broken down to a puree, each individual fruit dissembling to become one with its companions, but the mix is still loose.
It’s around now I turn off the oven that’s been heating the jars.
The “wrinkle test” is a way of making sure your jam will set properly before you commit to pouring it into those jars. A pre-cooled saucer is taken from the freezer and a small spoonful of the hot mix is dropped onto it. If after 30 seconds you can only stir it up with your fingertip the jam is not yet ready and you must prepared to test again in five minutes. But when the surface shows wrinkles in front of your moving finger the time has come to act. For seasoned makers of sugary preserves this is probably a tedious climb of false peaks; a procession of alternating expectation and disappointment. For me, as a first-timer in a warm kitchen surrounded by the rich redolence of toffeed fruit, these tests progressively ratchet up the levels of excitement. No sign of a wrinkle first time. Five minutes go by. No sign the second time. Five more minutes. Third time… is that a hint of a wrinkle? Fourth time, no doubt at all; that jammy rascal’s wrinkling like a good ‘un.
My jam is made! My first ever pan of jam! I am nothing short of an alchemist, turning base elements into precious produce.
I fish out the husks of lemon peel, give them a last squeeze and leave the pan for 15 minutes to settle and cool a little. An oven tray with eight hot jars and lids is lifted clinking onto the table. The saucepan is heavy. Using two hands I position its spout and start to pour but the jam comes out in a broad, flat sweep twice the width of the jar neck. Half of it has missed and spilled onto the tray. Damn. I’ve come too far to throw this all away now. It takes a strong right wrist and the dexterous use of a tablespoon in the other hand to cajole and corral the jam into the jars without wasting any more. But I’ve clearly miscalculated how much I would end up with. By the time it’s all poured four of the eight jars still stand shiny and empty, shrugging their shoulders at each other and silently asking, what now?
The empty jars may feel temporarily shunned but for me it’s only a minor disappointment. With the garden in darkness and the kitchen smelling sweet my first steps in the production of home produce have now been taken and there’ll be no stopping me. I must make more of this while there’s still ripe fruit on the bramble. I’ve spent the past few weeks clearing, cleaning and constructing a new pantry under my staircase and as soon as the first shelves have gone in next week I will have jars of home-made blackberry jam labelled and lined up on them well in advance of the winter famine.
As for the quality of the finished product, I scraped the spilled sample off the oven tray, spread it on some toast and thought it delicious. Mother, who has taken part in, and judged, many Women’s Institute competitions over the years has declared it a class-winning entry. My ex-wife says my next project should be to crochet a cushion cover.