It's blackberrying time. I keep hearing on the radio how the wet weather earlier in the season followed by a hot spell has led to a bumper fruit crop, and this afternoon I worked my way down the brambles in the lane collecting a punnet full of berries to make blackberry and apple crumble. It was my second picking of the season, and there were more ripe fruit than last week when I made my first expedition.
Books on British wild plants say that there are over a hundred microspecies of blackberry, all minutely different. You can see variations in the fruits along the hedge. Some bushes make big fat berries with lots of tiny individual drupelets, while others carry scrawny little berries with only a few of the individual fruit in each. It seems natural to go for the big berries, not just because they fill the punnet so much faster, but because the small ones somehow look defective. If they look weedy won't they taste mere as well? I have never collected a sample of each and compared them, and for all I know the puny looking fruit might be delicious.
The first few berries look very small and lost in the bottom of the container, and it seems as though filling it to the top is going to take all afternoon, but then you get into the rhythm, eye and hand working together, picking out the fruit that are dark purple but still shiny, passing over those that have become dull and sunken, and rejecting any that feel squashy to the fingers. Thus did our ancestors. Gathering. At what point in human evolution did we stop eating the berries straight off the bush like a bird, and start collecting them in a container? What did we use? Did we weave little baskets out of grass or willow? Or fold up huge leaves?
Today's harvest was combined with apple to make that early autumn classic, blackberry and apple crumble. These are two flavours that were clearly made for each other, but blackberries are dreadfully pippy, and so nowadays I cook them lightly and squeeze them against a sieve to extract the juice, then use that sans pips to flavour the apples. I precook the apples as well, before adding the crumble topping, having been caught out in the past by fruit crumble in which the fruit refused to soften, while the crumble passed from caramelised to burnt.
Unfortunately today's apples exploded to a mush before I'd even got as far as adding blackberry juice, and the crumble topping mostly sank into the resulting purple gloop. They were sold as Bramleys, which do cook to a fluff, but I didn't have the same problem when I made crumble last week, leaving me gently baffled. Did I cook them for critically too long this time round, or were they particularly watery apples? I have less than a month to perfect my technique, since come Michelmas Day the Devil spits on the blackberries, and the season is over.