All preserving begins with the picking and this is the time of year when nature’s harvest is at its best and ripe for the taking.
Most fruit can be bought out of season, but it simply cannot compare to that grown and picked when nature intended. There’s nothing quite like the taste of jam made with just-ripened berries plucked from a local hedgerow, or chutneys made with sweet, crunchy apples hand-picked from a nearby tree. What’s more, they can be made really cheaply too, perhaps costing no more than a bag of sugar. If you live near some hedgerows or are lucky enough to stumble across some on a walk, they’re a free gift far too good to miss. All of the taste and none of the expense – no wonder the hedgerow harvest is so popular.
Ready or not?
Perhaps the most abundant and recognisable of berries is the blackberry. Ripe berries will be deep purple or almost black, shiny and plump. If under-ripe they’ll be hard and taste acidic, so how can you tell when they’re ready? The simplest way to check is to pick and eat one – it should come away easily, leaving the stalk behind, and taste sweet and juicy. Over-ripe berries will be a dusty blue shade and turn to juice between your fingers.
A dry, sunny day is the best time to go foraging as blackberries harvested wet don’t keep very long. Brambling can be a prickly experience but it’s worth it for the great flavour and the glossy fruits. It’s hardly hi-tech, but a stick can be your best defence against thorny branches – just push them out of the way – and long sleeves will help to avoid scratches. Preserve as soon as possible to capture their goodness; for peace of mind that there are no bugs lurking, place the berries in water with a sprinkling of salt, leave for a couple of hours, then rinse with clean water.
An apple a day…
Blackberries are best friends to apples. Anyone with an orchard or an apple tree in their garden will usually have more than they know what to do with – promise them a home-baked blackberry and apple pie made with their bounty and they’ll be only too pleased to share. Turn blackberries and apples into sticky jam, or pair them with red onion and you’ve got the beginnings of a beautiful chutney. Then there’s home-made cordial… with all these options, why would you leave blackberries on the brambles!
More food for free…
There’s much more to the hedgerow harvest than just blackberries. Depending on where you live, you’ll be able to find blackcurrants, crab apples, gooseberries, sloes, damsons and rosehips with a little foraging. Damsons are fantastic in chutneys and they, along with sloes, put a fruity slant on gin, vodka or white rum when popped in a bottle and allowed to infuse. And if you are lucky enough to own, or know someone who does, an Orchard’s bounty is ripe for the picking– plums, pears and apples, even windfalls, can all be turned into something really special.