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Personal story: How to eat the hedgerow

I love to forage, and my mental sketch of the local park where I walk our dog is dotted with the places where fruit grows

In a thick hedge up the lane from where my mother lived, in Shropshire, was a gooseberry bush. We figured that someone had once spat a sour fruit out of their car window and it self-seeded deep inside the hedge, and grew all tangled up in beech, alder and blackthorn. The hidden bush generally yielded a meagre crop of berries, hardly worth the discomfort suffered in reaching for them. But one freak year we parted branches and peered in to the dark dappled depths of the hedge and realised there were hundreds of the hairy green globules. We picked five or six pounds of them.

Then my mother drove me around the lanes looking for any last remaining lanterns of elderflower. Back at the Aga, I assisted her in making gooseberry and elderflower jam. The sharp tang of the gooseberries was offset by a subtle aftertaste  of elderflower. It was a preserve of incredible delicacy, and a shared experience of foraging, jam-making and taste that I’ll never forget.

In the preface for an edition of his seminal book Food for Free, Richard Mabey wrote that, “One of the most complex and intimate relationships that most of us can have with the natural environment is to eat it.”

Our minds hold maps marked with significant locations. I love to forage, and my mental sketch of the local park where I walk our dog is dotted with the places where fruit grows. The first to ripen in summer are wild raspberries: small, tart tasteless things hidden among nettles. I struggle to pluck a few of these, enough to sprinkle on a bowl of cereal, a gesture of intent.

Not far away are half a dozen blackcurrant bushes, a remnant of long-ago allotments here. Each morning in June I note them ripening, and calculate: another week? The day after tomorrow? And every year the same thing happens: on the day I bring a plastic tub to pick the ripe blackcurrants, I find the bushes all stripped bare. Someone else has been monitoring them and got there hours before me. Every year! It must be the same person, grabbing them one day earlier than the day they’re perfectly ready.

No matter. I shouldn’t be greedy. There are also damson trees in the park – the fruit on each one slightly different – and a single red bullace that about ten years ago yielded a crop sufficient for pounds of lovely jam. There are sloes, hazelnuts. A pear tree with small, hard pears, and a grove of assorted species of apple that must have been planted as a tiny community orchard years ago and seems to be ignored by everyone apart from me. I’ve never seen another scrumper at work.

Hidden in the shade of a huge walnut tree, in recent years a strung-out cluster of saplings has grown. You can’t see with the naked eye anything distinctive about them unless you push through brambles: right up close, pale green globes become visible. Greengages. I doubt whether anyone else knows they are there. I help myself. Last year we preserved pounds in syrup in Kilner jars my mother had passed on.

The autumn rain brings mushrooms, in two or three spots regularly but also elsewhere at random – you have to keep an eye out. Field mushrooms in occasional abundance, the odd parasol. There’s nothing like taking parasols home, frying them in butter and having them on toast for breakfast. Their nutty smell, their meaty flesh.

But before then, bridging high summer and early autumn, come the royalty of food for free: blackberries. They begin to ripen in July, “At first, just one, a glossy purple clot/Among others, red, green, hard as a knot” – as Seamus Heaney wrote in “Blackberry-Picking”. But different species, growing in different locations, keep producing until towards the end of September – after which there are old prohibitions against eating them, which are hardly needed.

I pick them for my wife, who makes the finest blackberry jam in England; for our daughter, who likes blackberry and banana smoothies; and for myself to add to cereal.

You can’t pick too many blackberries, for, unlike blackcurrants, they ripen consecutively. Pick as many as you like today – there’ll be more tomorrow. The innate generosity of this gift floors me.

I walk our dog in the park every morning, and frequently in the afternoon. She used to grow impatient, but I tossed berries in the air for her and she gradually developed a taste, whether for the food or for the gymnastic exercise I’m not sure. She’s a cocker spaniel, and has a pretty good catch when there’s food involved.

Is there a more versatile fruit? A couple of years ago we had a wonderful glut. I made a surprisingly palatable blackberry chutney. My wife produced blackberry fool, crumble, a lemon and blackberry polenta cake fit for an emperor.

She also presented me with wine-making equipment from Wilko and found demi-johns on Gumtree. I reminded her that I achieved 13 per cent in my mock chemistry O-level many years ago (and was barred by the school from sitting the actual exam, despite my protestations that with studious revision I felt capable of pushing this mark up towards a healthy 20 per cent) and that such culinary experiments would end badly. Sure enough, press-ganged into a painstaking scientific process, I failed miserably, producing a dozen bottles of undrinkable purple vinegar with a faint residual trace of blackberry. I had little choice but to give them away to relatives at Christmas.

But it was my fault, not the blackberries’. And what’s so extraordinary is that this royal fruit gives lavishly in hedgerows and scrub across our islands, offering its bounty to humans and other animals. All it asks in return is that we defecate or spit its pips in pastures new.

Is it nature’s beautiful prodigality that makes me prefer foraging blackberries in the wild to picking raspberries from canes I planted in our garden? We find the sublime in different places, according to our taste. I feel closest to the divine picking blackberries in our local park. 

Tim Pears’s latest novel is “The Redeemed: The West Country Trilogy” (Bloomsbury)

This article appears in the 12 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in