Go wild with blackberries

Preparing, cooking and eating blackberries: it's all so much more satisfying when you've picked 'em yourself.

By Mike Lewis

Blackberries growing wild

Photo © Mike Lewis. All rights reserved.

Every year in late summer, whenever I go for a walk or bike ride, I remember to take with me a rigid plastic container with a well-fitting lid - and to wear a long-sleeved shirt. The container is so that I can pick the blackberries that grow in wild profusion in the parks and woods near my home. The long sleeves are to protect my arms from the vicious thorns that guard the fruit.

Wherever you live, the chances are good that there are wild blackberries growing somewhere nearby. They're a remarkably resilient plant, and you can find them growing in many unexpected places. Look for them along paths, river banks, roadside verges, in woodland and on moors, and even in industrial areas and urban scrubland. (The most prolific blackberry-picking spot I know is in waste ground behind a factory.) Of course, you should only help yourself to blackberries that are truly wild; if they're growing on private land, be sure to ask permission before picking.

Here in south east Scotland, the fruit are at their most abundant in late August and early September. The further south you live, the earlier the season. In the southern hemisphere, January and February are usually the best months for blackberry picking.

You might be tempted to gobble up the berries as you pick them, but it's a temptation that you should resist. Blackberry bushes are home to all kinds of bugs and airborne pollutants. You'll enjoy the berries more if you take them home, wash them carefully, and either eat them raw or use them in one of the many splendid recipes that enhance the fruit (I'll mention some of these recipes later in the article).

Are blackberries good for you?

That's an easy one to answer. The fact is that blackberries are one of the healthiest fruits you'll find. They're especially noted for their antioxidant strength. In fact, they have one of the best ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) ratings of any fruit. They're also high in dietary fiber (100 gms of uncooked fruit provides about 20% of your fiber RDA), vitamin C, vitamin K, folic acid and manganese.

As with most fruits, you get the maximum health benefits when you eat them raw. Some of the vitamins and other nutrients are lost in cooking, although the cooked berries are still beneficial. (By the way, strictly speaking a blackberry is not a berry at all, but something called an aggregate fruit, consisting of many small "drupelets").

Picking them, preparing them ...

As blackberries ripen, their color changes from pale green through pink and purple, becoming very dark purple or shiny black when ripe. You should only pick the largest, darkest fruit, avoiding those that appear wet, moldy or squashed. Leave the smaller, lighter-colored berries on the bush to ripen - the next person will appreciate them.

Once you get the blackberries home, place them in a large bowl and cover them with cold water. Add a teaspoon of salt - that's to kill the bugs - and let them stand for a couple of hours. Then rinse them thoroughly under cold running water. Finally, pick over the berries, removing any bits of stems and leaves.

The berries will keep for a day or two in the refrigerator, but it's best to bring them back to room temperature before serving. If you want to freeze them, just place the whole berries in a rigid container and put it in the freezer. Whether or not to add sugar before eating is a matter of taste. They don't really need sweetening, although some people claim that a little sugar will bring out their full flavor. Personally, I prefer to eat them just as they are.

… And cooking them

Stewed blackberry and apple

Photo © Mike Lewis. All rights reserved.

However much you enjoy plain, raw blackberries, you can get tired of them pretty quickly - especially if, like me, you harvest them in fairly large quantities while they're in season. Most of the blackberries that I pick end up getting cooked in some way. Often, I just stew them gently for about five minutes in a little water. Stewed blackberries, eaten cold, are delicious on their own, and even nicer served with yogurt, crème fraiche or ice cream.

Even better is the combination of blackberries and apples (illustrated, left) - two fruits that have a natural affinity. As a rough guide, allow one large cooking apple for each two cups (110 to 220 gms, 4 to 8 oz) of whole blackberries. Peel and core the apples, and chop them into small chunks. Place the apples and blackberries in a pan along with a couple of tablespoons of water. Because cooking apples are tart, you'll need to add sugar or other sweetener. Again, this is a matter of taste. A rule of thumb is to add an amount of sugar equal to about one tenth of the weight of the fruit.

Cook the fruit over a low heat for about five minutes or until the apples begin to soften. Give the fruit an occasional stir, but don't go away and leave it. If it cooks for too long, the apples will end up as an unappealing mush (although still perfectly edible). When the fruit's ready, leave it to cool before serving.

More recipe ideas

There are dozens of other ways of using blackberries. You can use them in pies and cobblers, in jams and jellies, in muffins and scones, as a topping for cheesecake, or as a filling for pancakes. One of my favorites is to combine them with other fruit (again, cooking apples are a good choice) to make a hot fruit crumble (our fruit crumble recipe is one of the most popular pages here on Veg World).

Another possibility is the delicious three-layered dessert known as a Denver crunch. Start by combining two cups (225 gms, 8 oz) of plain flour with one cup (100 gms, 3½ oz) of chopped pecans or walnuts, half a cup (100 gms, 3½ oz) of sugar and one cup (225 gms, 8 oz) of butter. Mix these ingredients until they resemble breadcrumbs. Press them into the base of an oiled round pie dish, and bake in a medium oven for about 20 minutes or until brown. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

To make the filling, beat 330 gms (11 oz) of cream cheese with one cup (190 gms, 6½ oz.) of superfine (caster) sugar and optionally a few drops of vanilla extract. Spread this mixture onto the cooked base. Finally, top with about two cups (220 gms, 8 oz.) of raw blackberries. These quantities will make six to eight servings.

Or, for a really indulgent dessert, try this recipe for blackberry syllabub. You'll need about four cups (440 gms, 16 oz) of raw blackberries for six servings of the dessert. Add two thirds of a cup (125 gms, 4½ oz) of white sugar and a couple of tablespoons of water. Cook rapidly in a covered pan for five to ten minutes. Unlike with the blackberry and apple dish I described earlier, the aim here is to make a puree, so don't worry about them overcooking and getting mushy.

Leave the cooked berries to cool. Then pass them through a sieve to remove the pips. Next, mix in two tablespoons of brandy or sherry and one cup (240 ml, 8 fl. oz.) of heavy (double) cream. Finally, whisk the white of a large egg until stiff, and fold this into the mixture. Serve chilled, in individual glasses.

There's something especially satisfying about making these delicious desserts with wild fruit that you've picked yourself. So if you're lucky enough to have blackberries growing near your home, go out and get picking. But please - watch out for those thorns.

September 2008

Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.

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