Summer in all its glory, has come and gone. And as if to make sure we understood, the weather turned bad overnight and gave us all a nasty turn. This week though we are back to lovely Autumnal days; cool sunshine, turning leaves and ripening fruit.
Living as we do in the big metropolis with a weeny (but so glad we have it) garden, our fruit-growing abilities are somewhat limited, however we do have a thornless blackberry, which always provides us with heavy crops of delicious blackberries in the late Summer and Autumn.
All you folk who live out of London will be laughing into your tea at the idea of planting a blackberry bush. Is she mad? Just go blackberrying. Well yes I would, but I haven’t found a reliable crop near us and anyway there’s something quite lovely about striding (all of a dozen steps) to the end of our garden and plucking a few ripe juicy fruits to add to my breakfast bowl each morning.
Don’t get me wrong, if we’re in the countryside then I love nothing more than scratching my arms to pieces in order to gather a bowl or bagful of lovely ripe blackberries, but this is our easy urban alternative.
As a fruiting plant to cultivate, a blackberry bush has to be the easiest as it requires barely any maintenance. Each year it puts forth two, or when it’s feeling particularly happy three, new shoots from the base. In their first year these new shoots grow and climb and sprout leaves. They are eager to please and grow vigorously. In their second year these same branches will flower and then bear fruit, while down below another two branches begin sprouting ready for serious growth the following year.
All I do each year in late Autumn is cut down the two or three branches that have just fruited, leaving next year’s growth ready to flower (and then fruit) the following Spring. I also clip the ends of those new branches so that they bush out rather than continuing to fire out longer and longer stems. How easy is that! I have never fed it – well maybe when feeding other nearby plants, but not because it needs it.
Of course it’s quite unruly, especially if left completely to its own devices, but I can tie back the branches easily enough and its somewhat random and wild growth suits our somewhat errr random and wild garden.
This year we’ve had a bumper crop; all that Summer sunshine has produced an abundance of plump sweet fruit. In the countryside blackberries can vary from tiny, hard, hairy fellas to sweet, round juicy beauties, and the two can be in brambles right next to each other – overall I think there are around 150 varieties of wild blackberries. Of course the glorious challenge is in reaching the juiciest, which are inevitably the ones that are tantalisingly just out of reach. Those fellas are definitely worth fighting for, but there’s also something very nice and London-ish about being able to pick a bowlful of consistently big and juicy blackberries from our garden without spending time removing small thorns from our forearms afterwards. It’s theraputic as, although we’re in the middle of London, our garden is very quiet and to lose oneself in something so sweet and satisfying is a joy.
So what have we done with this year’s lush fruit? Well apart from eating them straight off the bush, I have as I mentioned, been scattering them on my summer breakfast oats for the past few weeks. I soak oats and some chia seeds with milk and a squeeze of lemon juice overnight and serve them cold with fruit and yoghurt.
The basic recipe is courtesy of my favourite cookery blog: My New Roots written by Sarah-Britton who-is-a-culinary-genius. Her recipes have had greater influence on my diet in recent years than anyone else’s. So if you’re in the mood for a dietary revamp head over to My New Roots and dive in. Highlights for me include her totally addictive kale crisps which are and her best lentil salad ever, which is. Oh and I must mention our most recent find: Flavour Bomb Greens and Noodles. Go on, you won’t regret it!
Alongside the daily blackberry pickings we’ve also had 3 bumper crops so far. With the first, in the heat of summer, I made a blackberry sage water – fruit and sage leaves muddled together (with a muddler – woo hoo!) and topped up with sparkling water.
While I sipped on my delicate flavoured water I made a batch of blackberry ripple ice creams that went down a storm with the troops. A simple concoction of custard, condensed milk and of course blackberries, these beauts are based on a recipe for raspberry ripple ice creams. They would be good to make with the children, if any of the mixture made it into the moulds that is. Although we loved them there’s still one left in the fridge because none of us can bear to eat the last one. Maybe we’ll put it out for Father Christmas – it’ll make a nice change from mince pies.
With the last of that crop I made an upside-down blackberry cake, courtesy of Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall. I forgot to take a picture. A nice alternative to a classic apple and blackberry crumble or pie but there’s a reason why those two are classics.
Fast forward a couple of weeks to harvest number two. I’ve made blackberry cordial before and homemade mure – a blackberry liqueur but this time I fancied blackberry jam. A peruse online and I found a recipe for blackberry jam with mint and ginger. End result: delicious but a bit runny and not particularly well-spiced. I couldn’t taste the mint or the ginger, though Danny could tell there were other flavours. Not convinced, I re-boiled the jam with some more ginger and mint. Now it zings and sings!
Crop number three has given us more breakfast berries, as well as an intense smooth blackberry puree for ice cream and finally blackberry five spice sauce to accompany grilled chicken (duck or pork). Delicious. It shall be repeated. Incidentally the recipe requires the sauce to be made in a Vitamix. I made it in a pan and strained it afterwards. Easy peasy.
As an extra special addition we sprinkled on some freshly ground szechuan pepper – our first crop EVER from our very own szechuan pepper tree.
As you chew Szechuan peppercorns (the pink shells actually) they release fascinating flavours known as ‘ma’ and ‘la’. They are a complex taste sensation that left my bottom lip partially numb for half an hour after trying my first one! Try it, it’s amazing. Oh you don’t have a szechuan pepper tree? Really? Oh, right, well my mistake…
I love our little peppercorn tree – its leaves smell citrusy (because it’s a citrus) and deserve a little rub on the way past. It came from Otter Farm in Devon which is run by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s farming chum Mark Diacono. Mark has a lot to say about szechuan pepper just here. He has made it his mission to grow more unusual crops and fruit trees, especially now that things are hotting up a little in the U.K. Have a look online and see if you can’t be tempted…
Overall I’ve come to the conclusion, that having a small garden, we are better off growing fruit and veg that aren’t easy to buy. Last year we grew strawberries, but what’s the point when we can buy punnets of English grown strawberries in season? So instead we’ve switched to growing alpine strawberries. We don’t get many but each one is a little powerhouse of intense flavour and a really special treat, especially eaten straight off the plant.
So as we come to the end of this growing season, I am looking forward to the next with eager excitement. Time to consult some books, do some research and buy some seeds. And in the meantime I feel a blackberry and apple crumble coming on. Why don’t you get out there and do some blackberrying too – there’s still time for one of the best seasonal treats there is and it’s totally free! Quick, before it starts raining again.