Blackberry Season

From Living Within, September, p20

Foraging has become a buzzword in the food world and the “forager”, as introduced by Alice Waters in her famed California restaurant Chez Panisse, a finder of food or, more accurately, liaiser between restaurant and food suppliers, has become de riguer in many a fashionable London restaurant. Foraging sets me in mind of the great outdoors, searching for wild foodstuffs - mushrooms, berries, leaves - when in fact the forager in question at these chichi restaurants may be more often employed on-line or on the phone calling in orders from wholesalers, shops or farm-based producers.

While on holiday in France recently I was easily persuaded by a local wine maker to spend a morning with her and her daughter (and a few other interested parties) ‘foraging’ in their back garden (more of a small-holding really but let’s not split hairs). We went in search of leaves and fruit and other vegetation growing wild in amongst the washing lines, ducks and sheep and grazing patches and we learned (very quickly) how to tell the tasty amaranth and fat hen leaves and the edible black elderberries apart from their more toxic look-a-like neighbours.

We picked nettles, stinging ones, and although I don’t think there was a person there untroubled by smarting fingertips at the end of the morning, we were taught how to pick them, without gloves, to avoid the stinging hairs (for the record by folding the leaves from the underside which are sting free); we collected borage leaves and cucumber flavoured borage flowers growing underneath the courgette patch, the French somewhat bemused by my suggestion that the latter might ever find a place floating in a glass of Pimms, and we shook nigella seeds out of pods growing straight out of the bricks of the kitchen wall.

Although our word forage most likely derives from a Middle English adoption of an Old French word, and Alice Waters’ inspiration for setting up Chez Panisse in the 1970s was almost entirely French, the French do not seem to use an equivalent word to our forage, at least not with an equivalent meaning, or to celebrate an equivalent restaurant post in their best restaurants. For them, what we call foraging, is a simple act of collecting free bounty from the earth, an activity as natural to some country dwellers as sourcing good bread in the morning and nothing to make much of a fuss about.

An attempt at explanation of a restaurant concept such as is winning awards for Réne Redzepi in his two Michelin starred, 2012-Best-Restaurant-in-the-World winning, Copenhagen based restaurant Noma (famed for serving foraged live ants in its London pop-up guise at Claridges this year) to our French counterparts while we sorted and cleaned and cooked our foraged leaves and berries was no easy feat - they were beyond puzzled. Restaurants seem to them far more straightforward - good food, appropriately chosen wine to taste alongside, and they can do without absurd theatrics thank you very much. Our wild food was, incidentally, surprisingly good. We made gratins, quiches, crumbles and compotes with our free bounty and enjoyed a fabulous lunch even with a slightly trepidatious first bite of nettle quiche, and, true to the more usual occupation of our hosts, we were offered appropriate wines to taste alongside too.

But back to the point. It is September and, having now gained a small taste for foraging but lacking the skill and confidence to tell a deadly mushroom from an edible one or to be really sure of many wild leaves, the easiest and most recognisable food for me to forage in my own locale is our instantly recognisable blackberry, currently fruiting liberally on our locally available bramble bushes. In the woods or in town, trailing through trees or over fences and road signs, in the backs of untended gardens or allotments, these blackberries are much smaller than the cultivated kind found packaged expensively in the supermarket but their size belies their more fulsome flavour, more subtly sweet and powerfully sour than the commercially grown big boys. An easy to gather foraging staple that risks only a few grazes and some blue staining to the fingers and forearms as one reaches for just one more perfect specimen hanging tantalisingly at a full body stretch.

If your harvest is sufficient, you might consider making jam, pie, tart, crumble or cobbler. With fewer in your foraging basket (and it is never wise to fill your container too full as the fruit is very delicate when properly ripe and will be damaged by being weighed down) you can sprinkle them over your breakfast, heat them with a little sugar for a compote to go with ice cream or yoghurt, blitz them in a creamy fool or add them to apples to stretch them further while giving the apples the benefit of their colour and sharpness; apple and blackberry complement each other perfectly and both will be enhanced by a sprinkle of cinnamon. We have already used them in my house to decorate a French fruit tart and to stud some airy fat pancakes but the season will be on us for a while to come yet and there is scope for much much more.

I shall not offer you recipes here - use your favourite source for a pastry crust, a crumble or cobbler topping and you need only tinker with quantities of sugar depending on the sweetness of the fruit and your own palate. A sprinkle of caster or icing sugar over a finished desert will remedy undue tartness and over sweetening can be put right with a squeeze or two of lemon or lime; spice can be added according to taste but, above all, keep it simple, sugar and spice should be used to enhance the natural flavour not to mask it.

“You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking.” ~Seamus Heaney, 'Blackberry Picking’

Erica x