It’s not been a good year for blackberries. Leastways, round here it hasn’t been, judging by my less-than-average haul from my two trips along the coast path in search of the goods. It was a sore disappointment after the purplishly gluttonous week I had gorging on the glossy clots as I tramped my way round the Isles of Scilly in mid-September. How many blackberries are too many blackberries? asked my mum approximately half way round St Martin’s. A couple of hours later she found herself questioning how I could possibly still be eating them after an entire day of near-continual berry-grazing – a hard thing not to do when you’re rambling along bramble-lined pathways heavily dotted with fruits so fat and ripe they practically fall into your hands as you reach out for them.
So it came as a bit of a shock when, armed with a selection of empty containers, I set out on my tried and tested routes of good pickings to find hardly any ripe ones, with those that were ready about half the size of their Scillonian counterparts. I’d been anxious to get on with picking: it was 29th September, the seldom remembered feast of Michaelmas, after which it is inadvisable to go blackberrying. According to folklore St Michael’s day marks the day the devil was chucked out of heaven, landing Winnie-the-Pooh-style in a bramble bush on the way down. Just to make sure everyone knew the extent of his wrath over this event (or possibly to alleviate his wounded pride at how many prickles he must have got stuck in his arse) the devil either cursed the blackberries, spat on them, or pissed on them, depending on which part of the country you’re in. As with a lot of folk tales, it does seem a little far fetched, but if you pick blackberries later into the autumn months you’d probably regret it as they’re nearly always rancid, mouldy or hard.
At first I wondered if the lack of good berries was just because I was too late: this was the last weekend in September, and either the berries were over, or everyone else had got the bushes before I had. As soon as I diverged from the path well travelled for a narrow tributary scratching its way through the thickets I started to think there might be some truth in this as I did seem to find more patches of good ones remaining. My best haul (an entire flora tub filled in a matter of minutes) came from a bramble hedge at the bottom of the Nansidwell pasture, where the desire line of the coast path cuts more or less straight across the middle of the field and away from the hedgeline.
I have always maintained that blackberries taste best when picked within sight, or better still sound, of the sea. (Ok not always, but since moving to Cornwall, which I did as soon as I became an independent adult. The combination of unmanaged scrub and coastal grazing demarcated by thick thorny hedges – effective cow-stopping devices – make for a passable cornucopia of fruiting brambles. One time after I first moved here I set out with a tesco bag intending to bring back the goods for the coming weeks’ puddings, but the results so surpassed my expectations I was forced to initiate myself into the dark art of preserving.) Perhaps it’s something to do with the sea air. Or the rain. Or both: in particular the lack of pollution in both of these probably has more to do with the quality of the fruit than the proximity of a large body of salt water.
As to why the harvest was so poor this year, I think I can safely get away with blaming the wet summer. We had a good combination of rain and sun in August to ripen and fill the fruit – you need enough of each but not too much of either in order for the berries to become fat and juicy. Too much rain at the wrong time and they become bloated, mushy and tasteless. However the damage was done with the prolonged period of wet weather earlier in the summer. Cold, sodden days, with far less sunshine than was usual for early June dealt the brambles a poor hand during blossoming. The persistent precipitation prevented bees and pollinating insects from getting to the flowers when they were most needed. Most of the blackberries that actually did manage to ripen on my home turf were tiny, and either tasteless or so bitter I stopped bothering snacking on them as I went along. Lower levels of sunlight meant lower levels of photosynthesis; in turn meaning lower levels of glucose production in leaf cells, so less sugar to go into the fruit. However this did present a back-handed advantage for my berry-stockpiling: if I ate fewer of them during picking there would be more going into my punnet, therefore more for the crumbles of the coming weeks.
Of course it isn’t just the puddings that make a blackberrying expedition worthwhile. Yes, there’s the nettle rash, the stained fingernails and the unavoidable thorn-scratching, hair-catching of the brambles, not to mention the added perils of spiders’ webs and cow pats; but it’s all part of the fun. I’m so lucky in that my picking route takes me along a tiny stretch of the South West Coast Path with a fantastic view of the coastline from the Manacles to Dodman Point on a clear day. A side path which a few weeks ago was wall-to-wall pink with rosebay willowherb is covered with featherlike seeds where the flowers have finished. Bryony garlands festoon the thickets, and honeysuckle, rosehip, rowan and elder are all in berry in varying shiny red beads that catch the colour of the low autumn sun like early Christmas decorations. The day was warm, but we’ve passed the equinox now and all too soon the sun was behind the headland to the west, a crisp chill descending with the shade. Even the moon, when it appeared full and early while the sun was still visible, seemed appropriately autumnal, a paper-thin honesty seed hanging huge over the bay.
Check out these blackberry offerings from the experts:
Blackberrying by Sylvia Plath (for the choughs, of course)
Blackberry Eating by Galway Kinnell (for his many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps)
Blackberry Picking by Seamus Heaney (for Bluebeard)
Blackberry Recipes by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (for a crumble alternative)