We gathered our first blackberries of the season last Sunday. Given any few rays of sunshine, this year’s crop looks promising. And they’re free. There they hung in the hedgerow along with sloes, rose hips and elderberries, mostly camouflaged, for now, by their forty shades of green but promising reds, purples and glossy black.
As I plucked the berries, I had Trish Deseine’s article on my mind. ”A French foodie homecoming” in last Saturday’s Irish Times magazine is both an ode to and a lament on contemporary food culture in Ireland. Subsequent exchanges on Twitter were disheartening. It seems that a small minority are concerned with good diet and that, despite all the ‘foodie’ programmes on TV, the beautiful cookbooks and entertaining blogs, most people are eating an increasingly bad diet and as a nation we’re getting fatter.
Yes- FAT- the word that (like Voldemort in Harry Potter) must not be spoken. People hard-pressed for time and money take most of their nutritional information from food and drink packaging and advertising. Now who does that benefit?
Bullseye Food recently posted a graph showing how and where we spend our money on food pic.twitter.com/MS1E0xzw . Have a look and don’t wonder any more why the streets of our towns and villages are lined with boarded- up premises of former small traders. We have voted with our feet for the demise of the local butcher, grocer, vegetable shop, fishmonger. Instead we take a trolley, waltz the supermarket aisles like a Stepford Wife, meandering through yards and yards of sugar-laden food and drinks. We emerge blinking in the daylight. Mindfulness is banished. Orwell would be horrified to have got it so right.
Blackberries, by contrast are free. There’s you, your little bucket slung over your arm, and nature. That’s all. Full of vitamin C and antioxidants, they help you eat that purple/ magenta spectrum of the rainbow so necessary for a good diet. You don’t have to be an anarchist or enchanted by the madness of Lúnasa to gather them, just a free-thinking pleasure seeker.
‘Lá ag bailiú sméara dubha‘ (a day gathering blackberries) was our first essay on returning to National School each September. Teachers knew that every family went blackberry picking, and that there were as many treasured recipes as families. Whether you were good, bad or indifferent at writing an essay, this one was always a happy one. Small children spend most of their time howling about how the best blackberries are too high to reach…..(early life lesson about desires, goals, deferred gratification, co-operation etc.)
Blackberries make a superb tart with Bramley apples. They freeze well, make a good crumble or pie and outstanding jam. I have a recipe for a superb black fruit salad which I look forward to making when I’m feeding a crowd.
The piseóg (old Irish superstition) says that blackberries must not be eaten after Oíche Shamhna (Hallowee’n) as the fairies will have tainted them. So that leaves us two and a half months of purple mouths, blackened fingers and delighted children from today, 15ú Lúnasa (15th August)
Last Sunday , I stewed the blackberries, plain and simple. Having removed the green tips and an occasional maggot, I rained them into a little saucepan, added a heaped tablespoon of sugar and 1 centimetre of water. I put the lid on and cooked them on a low heat for about ten minutes until they -just about-came to the boil, then decanted them into a bowl to cool.
That’s how we ate them, flooding the palate with their unique, seasonal flavour. Yet another of those wonderful ’Go mbeirimíd beo ar an am seo arís‘ moments (May we all be alive and well on this occasion next year). You could add cream, custard, Savoiardi biscuits for dipping, but why gild the lily?