If you go down in the woods today, you’ll be sure of some big returns – thanks to this year’s mild winter and early spring, Britain is enjoying a bumper harvest of wild fruit, and so there’s never been a better time to get out there with your carrier bag.
The easiest candidate to spot is the familiar blackberry; little chance of mistaking that for anything deadly. Even the most diehard urbanite is confident enough to pluck a few fruit from the spiny tendrils that bravely push through tarmac – for most, finding the gritty berries represents our sole annual foray into the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
Britain boasts about 400 microspecies of bramble, which explains why the flavour varies so much from bush to bush, and is why it’s worth recording the location of any particularly good fruit you happen upon for next year (or, indeed, take a cutting home with you, though given that they can grow three inches a day I’d recommend this only if you enjoy the slash-and-burn style of gardening).
All are members of the rose family, a fact that surprised me until I managed to snag a finger on a particularly vicious thorn. There was some comfort in the knowledge that I was in timeless company in this late-summer ritual of hopping and cursing; the Old English word bræmbel means prickly shrub, and a Neolithic skeleton in Walton-on-the-Naze was found with both blackberry and rose seeds (though, sadly, no Tesco bag).
Brambles are unusual, in that the fruit don’t ripen simultaneously, even on the same plant; it is common to find little red bullets blocking the way to the sweet, purple ones you’re after, or to discover a juicy treasure amid mould.
If it doesn’t come away from the stem easily, then it probably isn’t ready to pick. But my theory – that the fruit with more small, tightly packed drupelets are usually tangier and thus tastier than those with larger, blowsier charms – finds little support in the literature on the subject. Richard Mabey’s iconic Food for Free (1972) does inform me, however, that the lowest fruit on each stem, the first to ripen, are “the sweetest and fattest of all”, while the small berries towards the top, which hold out until October, will be bitter “and only really useful if cooked with some other fruit”.
Some may also be lucky enough to find the more elusive dewberry (a name that, for female readers of a certain age, will forever conjure up the heady scent of the Body Shop). This is another member of the bramble family which flourishes in more open grass and scrubland. Its fruit have fewer segments than the blackberry and, when ripe, are covered in a whitish bloom like a blueberry. Temptingly juicy, they should be plucked with the utmost gentleness, and preferably scoffed on the spot before they disintegrate into a puddle of purple ink.
Blackberries, on the other hand, are hardier sorts, well able to make it from the hedgerow to the kitchen in your coat pocket without too much damage. I still think the best way to enjoy the rare perfume of the wild variety is fresh from the bush while already selecting the next victim – but as well as the usual crumbles and pies, they also make an excellent fool and a decent autumnal replacement for summer cherries in a clafoutis, as well as a lovely fruity sauce for the first of the season’s game.
Whatever you go for, don’t hang about – ancient wisdom has it that the devil fell down to earth on Michaelmas (10 October, in the old calendar) and landed on a bramble bush. As to what happened next, well, let’s just say that hell hath no fury like a prickled prince of darkness. Trust me, you don’t want to eat blackberries on the 11th.