Words by forager Sarah Watson
Photography by Sarah Watson
'Blackberrying' is a long-held British pastime and the familiar hedgerow fruits evoke memories of childhood summers berry-picking in the countryside. The delicious, dark fruits, traditionally used for jams and crumbles, add depth, sweet-tart notes and colour to a multitude of cocktails, the Bramble being perhaps the best-known.
Common name: Blackberry or bramble
Latin name: Rubus species
Plant family: Rose (Rosaceae)
Edible part: Fruit
Evidence points to humans having foraged blackberries since at least the Stone Age, and they seem to be very beneficial for us. They're reported to contain cancer-fighting ingredients, and wild blackberries in particular may be good for brain health. They're rich in certain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and are thought to boost immunity.
The blackberry is one of the most widespread plants in the world. Many native types can be found growing on all continents, except Antarctica. Several species are invasive, notably the Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) which has naturalised in parts of Europe and the US.
The native blackberry in Britain (Rubus fruticosus), also known as bramble) is a scrambling shrub that grows throughout most of the country, common in woods, hedges, heathland, verges and wasteland. Its long, arching, thorny stems, seen as a nuisance for most of the year, provide one of our most abundant wild fruits.
Compared to cultivated blackberries, the wild fruit can seem small and seedy, rather sour and less plump and sweet. Not such an issue if you're juicing or cooking, straining and sweetening the fruit, and it can have a more intense flavour. There are over 400 micro-species of the native blackberry in Britain, which is why they can taste quite different!
The fruits ripen from late July, and by the end of September, the devil is said to have spat on them! Or so say English folklore and my mother. By this time the berries are often starting to go watery and tasteless, or mouldy in the wetter weather.
Bramble has clusters of 5-petalled delicate, white or pink flowers of around 3cm in diameter, pictured below with a 'thick-legged flower beetle' - I didn't make the name up! The plant is a source of food for pollinators like beetles and bees, as well as for mammals and birds.
The leaflets, in clusters of 3 or 5, are oval and pointed with toothed edges. They are dark green on top and paler grey-green underneath with prickly stalks and mid-ribs.
Blackberry fruits are green at first, ripening to red, purple then black. They are 1 to 2cm long when ripe, having up to 20 segments, each with a single seed. A ripe blackberry's white core remains inside the fruit when picked, unlike that of a raspberry which is left on the plant.
The closely-related European dewberry (Rubus caesius) resembles the blackberry. In Britain it's found mainly in England and Wales. The blueish-black fruits have fewer, larger segments and a whitish bloom, giving them a dusty look. Dewberries are just as tasty, if not more so. Pictured below is my version of the Bramble with muddled dewberries, raspberry-infused gin and blackberry liqueur.
Blackberries have traditionally been used to make country wine, and around the 18th century, ale brewed from blackberries, malt and hops was popular. Nowadays, the fruit is used to flavour vodka, gin, schnapps, liqueurs and cider.
Giffard's Crème de Mûre is a traditional French blackberry liqueur made from blackberry extracts and blackberry juice. Braemble Gin Liqueur is a less sugary option made with London Dry Gin and Scottish brambles.
Blackberry complements elderberries, raspberries and blackcurrants, as well as apples, sloes, citrus, honeysuckle, mint, ginger, cinnamon, honey and chocolate. It pairs with a wide range of spirits, from vodka, gin, tequila and pisco to whisk(e)y, rum and brandy.
• When ripe and ready to pick, blackberries are glossy and black and pull away from the plant easily, but watch out for thorns. Choose plump, clean fruits and handle gently to avoid bruising.
• Avoid picking blackberries too close to the ground where people walk dogs. And it's best not to pick along really busy roadsides, or around fields which may have been sprayed with chemicals.
• Blackberries only keep for about 3 days in the fridge. To prevent fruit going soggy, leave rinsing until just before using.
• The fruits freeze well - wash and set aside to dry, before freezing on a tray in a single layer. Transfer to a container once frozen.
Try fresh blackberries in Simon Difford's Apple and Blackberry Pie cocktail, a Blackberry and Agave Caipirinha, a Margarita or a Sour. Pictured below is my version of a Collins with gin, lavender limoncello and muddled wild blackberries. Provided they're not too small and seedy, blackberries make a fine, decorative garnish for cocktails. Try a home-made blackberry liqueur in a Bramble, Apple and Blackberry Spritz or a spin on a Kir Royale.
Make a flavoursome blackberry syrup to use in place of simple syrup - in a Julep, for example. Add enough water to a pan to almost cover the fruit and cook gently until soft, mashing to help extract the juice. Strain juice through a double layer of muslin suspended over a large bowl. Add juice to a clean pan with 350g sugar for every 500ml. Heat gently, stirring until sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil for a couple of minutes. Remove from heat, add the strained juice of half a lemon per 500ml, and stir. Funnel hot syrup into sterilised glass bottle(s) and seal. Refrigerate once opened.
To make a rich, tangy blackberry shrub (drinking vinegar) great with rum or bourbon, use one cup cider vinegar, one cup white sugar, and one and a quarter cups washed blackberries. Mix sugar and fruit in a bowl, lightly crushing the berries. Cover and leave at room temperature for 24 hours, stirring once or twice. Add vinegar and whisk to dissolve the sugar. Cover and refrigerate for a week. Fine strain the liquid through a muslin-lined sieve, pour into a sterilised bottle. Seal and refrigerate for up to 4 months. Leave for at least a week to mellow before use.
When foraging, always use good field guides to identify your finds to 100% certainty before eating them - if in doubt, leave it out. Keep to public footpaths if you're on private land.
For more information on foraging see Sarah's website: WildFeast.co.uk