Blackberries in the Freezer

Blackberries in the Freezer

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love free stuff. LOVE it. So blackberries are one of my favourite things. But they’re more than that. They are one of the more essential markers for my year, and a continuing link to everyone I’ve ever been. And I can promise that, when I’m an old lady, wherever I end up, I’ll still be out there filling my plastic boxes and getting my fingertips stained purple.

Blackberries

I grew up in a little village in Wiltshire. It was the village where my mother and my grandfather had been born. When I was a child, back in the Seventies, it was still the sort of village where everyone knew everybody, all very Laurie Lee. The same things happened every year: the carnival; the sponsored walk to raise money for the village hall; the candlelit Christmas service. If I think of life before the age of about ten, everything runs together, linked by the photographs in the plastic-covered album on my mum’s shelf. But I also remember happenings that weren’t photographed. They are both more real (because I haven’t remembered them because of the snapshot) and less so (because there is no specific time frame). Blackberry picking falls into this latter class.

Wanborough

Our house was on the High Street. Across the road were fields. There were two houses to the left, and then fields. On the right, my grandmother’s house and The Brewer’s Arms started the run of houses which made up the bulk of the village. Then there were more fields. My mum worked, so she was a weekend person, like my dad.*  Everyday was my Irish grandmother in the house next door. But the blackberry picking I remember only with my mum. Can’t remember which fields we went to. Don’t remember any particular days. It may have only happened once, with the memory spreading to encompass an entire childhood, but it set a precedent which has continued, with very few gap years, to this day.

 

More than a decade ago, I was visiting my parents and there were windfall apples stacked in the larder, so I made a crumble. Memory led me to the freezer in the garage, and there they were: ice cream tubs filled with blackberries, labelled 1978. The freezer had been changed at least once in the twenty or so years since the blackberries went in. They were still perfect. The crumble was great.

Crabapples

I first made jam when I was fifteen or so. I’d taken the dog for a walk and found a crabapple tree. Nobody I knew preserved. There was no Google to turn to for recipes. Mum’s main cookbook was a pale blue, linen-covered hardback of Marguerite Patten. No jam in there. I ended up with Mrs Beeton. Between ‘Food for Invalids’ and ‘How to Guide your Servants’ was a recipe for crabapple jelly. Mine wasn’t a success. I can’t recall now what I used to strain the juice out, but I do remember feeling perplexed at needing a medium fire: could you do that on a gas cooker? And Mrs Beeton said I needed something called Loaf Sugar. I used demerara, boiled the resulting syrup for too long and ended up with a sort of toffee in a jar.

Hedgerow gatherings

Over the years, I have learned to do it better. I have a preserving pan, and I know about saucers in the icebox and using lemon pips for pectin. Throughout the year, I am alert to the trees and hedgerows that I pass, so to blackberries and crabapples I’ve added wild damsons and hazelnuts, elderberries and mountain ash. I’ve even found wild blackcurrants. This year, most of the blackberries have gone to flavour gin and vodka, and I’ve jammed up a whole line of flavoured crab apple jellies. I take my kids with me, every year. They also find it hard to pass up a bush of glistening fruit. Gabe likes to turn his into crumble. On the boat, we don’t have a freezer, so the crumble is a somewhat fleeting pleasure. I ask my daughters what they think of blackberries, and they’re a bit stumped. ‘Well, it’s what you do at this time of year, isn’t it?’ one of them says. Will you, I ask, keep picking them when you leave home. ‘Probably. Yes, I will.’ And, if you wanted to make jam, would you know what to do? ‘No. But I’d just phone you.’

crabapple jellies

 

* Just need to clarify here: my parents worked very hard, and spent a lot of time in the evenings driving me and my brother around to things. All I mean is I remember doing things with them at weekends, not weekdays. And Mum, I know I’ll never hear the end of that… :0)

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