For me early September is a magical time in the food calendar. Blackberries teem from thorny bushes, the fragrant elderflowers have turned into plumb green berries and scarlet fruit laden rowan berry trees dot the countryside. Damsons and Victoria plums are in full flight.
The solitary apple tree in my garden is awash with a ruby red crop. I cut one open and was instantly transported back to childhood and dunking for apples – when apples smelled and tasted like they should as opposed to the insipid supermarket variety that tastes of nothing.
Capturing the essence of this wonderful harvest occupies a good bit of my free time at the moment. There is something very rewarding about picking and preserving produce.
My aunt Doreen has a rowan tree in her garden and I gathered a good bucket of fruit from it. They were mixed with aforementioned apples and made into a jelly. I’ve included the recipe for this - a 24 hour task but very rewarding. The fruit is boiled with water, strained through muslin overnight then boiled with sugar the next day and bottled. The coral berries are transformed into a translucent rich red jelly that’s traditionally served with game or lamb.
Straight rowan berries are lip-puckeringly astringent and even with lots of added sugar, the jelly is sharp, making it ideal to be served with robustly flavoured meats. You can’t buy this jelly in the shops which makes it unique and particularly special.
The elderberry bushes are straining with green berries. We make cordial and champagne from the lacey white flowers in mid summer, then inexplicably ignore them for the rest of the year.
Seamus Heaney describes the ripe black berries as: “A swart caviar of shot. A buoyant spawn, a light bruised out of purple.” When they’re ripe, tart berries make a tangy syrup that will ward off winter colds because of the rich nutrients in the fruit or make them into a jelly with port and thyme to have with winter game (those recipes will follow in the next few weeks…).
In the meantime pick the green berries, submerge them in seasalt for three weeks, wash, dry and then pickle in vinegar. These little orbs are like floral capers and just a teaspoon will elevate a sauce or dressing for oily fish or grilled lamb with a sweet scented piquancy.
Picking blackberries should be a mandatory part of the curriculum in primary schools! As well as learning where food comes from class could swing past the supermarket afterwards and compare their free crop with the £3 measly punnet imported from Peru. Horticulture, maths and geography in one simple lesson.
The blackberries you pick are infinitely better than cultivated varieties – they tell the story of a rain lashed summer with pockets of steamy early autumn sunshine. A simple apple and blackberry crumble, warm from the pot and topped with cold icecream is the quintessence of early September.