What astonished me, given their vigilance, was the way they ignored the blackberries growing in profusion around them. This may have been because historically, the plants, stems and bark were brewed for medical use as a cure for stomach ulcers. I feel honoured to say I could repay their generosity over sharing with me their plant knowledge to show them how blackberries could be made into compotes to go with yogurt or a version of the jellies so popular in Greece to offer a visitor with a tiny cup of strong coffee.
Not so long ago, the Black Berry was a popular Canadian brand of smartphones, beloved of serious techno geeks, and killed off by its insistence on sticking with its own in-house systems in 2016 while the rest of the world took up with Android and iOS. Now all we’re left with is the fruit, a relation, would you believe of the rose family.
It’s also related to the raspberry, which you may have guessed when attempting to lever out the tiny seeds of both from the crevices in your teeth. The significant difference between them is the fact that the stem or ‘torus’ remains inside the blackberry when picked, while with the raspberry it remains behind on the branch.
The Greeks may not have employed the fruit. But its earliest known consumption has been established in the remains of a Danish woman known as the Haraldskaer Woman, preserved in a bog and dating from around 2,500 years ago. Then there is a 1696 English record of the fruit, the London Pharmacopoeia, showing blackberries were used to make wines and cordials. Think about making a Cassis-style liqueur with them.
The berries, leaves and stems have also been used to dye fabrics and hair. Native Americans have even been recorded using the stems to make rope. Planting the shrubs around buildings, crops and livestock to create protective barriers against enemies and large wild animals was common both in Europe and in North America. But if all you want to do is eat them, you should know that as well as being free if you go out and pick them, blackberries offer the highest antioxidant activity of commonly consumed fruits, next to pomegranates. 100 grams of them deliver 10.2 grams of carbohydrates, 5.3 of which are fibre, double the fibre content of blueberries more usually punted for that ability.
You can tell if a person comes from the north or the south of England by how they describe the fruit. In the south, it’s a blackberry. In the north, it’s a bramble, named after the impenetrable thicket on which it grows.
Given blackberries mature at the same time as apples, it makes an obvious pairing for delicious seasonal pies and crumbles. But think about using them as a main course ingredient. This recipe pairs them with grilled chicken, extending the use of the barbecue just a few weeks more. But here it’s cooked under an oven grill, in a recipe that works equally well with ducks’ legs and thighs.
- 170g blackberries
- 1/4 cup water
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons cold butter cut into cubes
- 1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
- 4 chicken thighs
- 4 drumsticks
- salt and black pepper
- Flat-leaf parsley
Heat the grill to medium. In a small saucepan, combine blackberries, water, white wine vinegar, and sugar and simmer, mashing occasionally, until the liquid has reduced to about 2 tablespoons, 18 to 20 minutes.
Stir in the butter, a cube at a time, and the mustard. Pour half the glaze into a bowl and reserve.
Pat the chicken pieces dry on paper towels. Season with salt and black pepper. Grill, skin-sides up, covered with a sheet of aluminium foil for 15 minutes. Uncover, baste with some of the glaze and grill, turning and basting repeatedly until cooked through, 10 to 12 minutes.
Sprinkle with fresh flat-leaf parsley and serve with the remaining glaze.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the September 2021 edition of The Bugle.