High in the hills of South East London there’s a portal to another time and place. Not a police box or wooded park, nor the back of a wardrobe. It doesn’t announce itself with strobing lights or whooshing noises. It’s almost diffident really … except that it seems kind of impossible. It’s an unpaved lane, pot-holed and dusty, lined with squat little cottages that leads into the briefest of shaded woods and then bursts into a glorious vista of the entire city. It’s invisible from either end – I doubt if many more people than those who dwell on the lane even know of its existence.
Charming though all that is, that’s not what makes this spot the aforementioned portal. What makes this lane an enchanted pathway to the past is that recently it’s been simply covered in blackberry-laden brambles.
The past I’m speaking of is, of course, my past. My childhood, to be exact.
When I first ventured down this lane a few weeks ago, and my eyes fell on the jet clusters of berries swarming over the lane walls, I was instantly back in a hot English summer of my childhood picking blackberries alongside the train tracks with my siblings and my Granny.
We didn’t grow up here in Britain, but our peripatetic childhood was thankfully punctuated with visits to our mother’s parents, our beloved Granny and Grandad. These visits always fell toward the end of summer, and every single time we came to stay there would come a day when Granny would lead us three children out of the house, plastic buckets in hand, and down to the neglected end of a small park, where the London tube line had surfaced and cut a hot metal path through tangled trees and bushes. There grew the greatest bounty of blackberries, plump from the summer sun. My brother and sister, both older and taller than I, could reach higher and gather the best berries from the tops of the bushes, but my skinny arms and little hands could snake between the thorny prickly stands to find hidden clusters of fat juicy berries just high enough not be in danger of having been wee’d on by a fox.
Then with full buckets and garnet-stained fingers we’d go back home to Granny’s house to share our foraging spoils. I’m sure Granny made many wonderful things with the bounty of berries. Her pies were legendary. But there was one simple treat for us kids that we clamoured for every time. The berries would be gently washed, then Granny would serve them in small bowls with big scoops of Wall’s Cream Of Cornish Vanilla ice cream. The dark tang of the berries exploding into the rich, almost buttery smoothness of the ice cream was heaven. It was a sensation the memory of which I – and my siblings- find pleasurably visceral to this day.
So, I was frankly dizzy for a moment or two as I stood there the other day, once again in the hot summer sun with a bank of luscious black jewels before me. I was reaching to pluck the berries and pop them in my mouth almost before I was aware of what I was doing. That sweet blackness, sharp and hot from the sun, and I was that little boy again. And even when I came back to now, out of the memory and back into my fifty-year old self, I was still childishly happy at my berry-gore stained hands.
Of course, I rushed home to grab a plastic bucket (or it being now, some Tupperware) to fill with berries. And fill it I did, all the while plotting what I’d do with my new-foraged hoard. Some berries to have right away, of course- or at least just as soon as I could get my hands on that Wall’s Cream Of Cornish ice cream. A whole bunch for the freezer since blackberries freeze so well and are great for Autumnal sauces and desserts. And then most certainly a syrup and a sorbet. Hours of post foraging fun!
It was while I was pushing cooked blackberries through a sieve for a syrup that I began to wonder what would be the ultimate English berry. After all, in the US there are three. There is the cranberry, the blueberry, and the huckleberry, all not only native to the Americas, but also, well, American. Was there a berry that just was England in berry form?
Now why an English berry, and not a British berry? Well, I suppose my thought process was pandering to the American/English duality in my nature and palate. Also, Scotland can claim raspberries as their own, really. Highland raspberries are the best in the UK, and any people who can mix raspberries, oats, cream and whiskey to a palatable dish get to claim the raspberries as their own. The Welsh have leeks.
On the face of it, of course strawberries are the “English” berry. They’re as emblematic of English summers as asparagus, synonymous with Wimbledon (about 2 million berries are served each year), and a mainstay of Eton Mess, that impossibly creamy meringue confection served to impossibly posh public-school boys. They’re part of our history. We know that the classic English dish of strawberries and cream (as English as apple pie is American, as these old chestnuts go) was first served by Cardinal Wolsey to Henry VIII at Hampton Court. It got the Royal stamp of approval, and has been enshrined in English cuisine ever since. So strawberries are the English berry, right?
Well not so fast. It transpires that the strawberries we farm and eat today aren’t the strawberries that Wolsey served, and aren’t even particularly English. These farmed berries are in fact the descendants of a cross of two varieties from the Americas (Virginia and Chile), and first cultivated by the French in the 18th Century. Pearl-clutchingly not English. Worse yet, the strawberry is not- botanically speaking- a berry at all. It is what’s known in the weeding world as an “aggregate accessory fruit”, though to be fair, exactly the same is true of the blackberry. (To be a true berry, the fruit must be fleshy, without a stone, and produced from a single flower containing a single ovary.)
One could argue that the most truly deeply English berry is the blackcurrant, which although not called a berry actually is a berry. The blackcurrant and its near relations the redcurrant and the white currant are all grown and consumed across this green and pleasant land. None of them, however, are currants. Currants are a variety of dried grape. If for no other reason than this tortuous path through English nomenclature, the blackcurrant deserves the English Berry crown. (Incidentally, a grape is also a berry.)
To the American side of my palate, the blackcurrant is very uniquely English indeed. It’s a flavour simply absent in the US (the cultivation of blackcurrants in the US was banned in the early 1900s due a blight that affected the pine logging industry, and this ban is only recently being lifted state by state), but omnipresent in English desserts, candies, and soft drinks. It’s a bit like purple grape, but darker and more tangy. The blackcurrant’s popularity in the UK stems in great part from World War II, when the high Vitamin C content of the berry- particularly when turned into a squash or cordial- made it an ideal replacement for the fresh orange juice that German blockades rendered unobtainable. Blackcurrant juice was in fact the first Wartime”Welfare” Food. Its role in keeping the British healthy during the war years makes the blackcurrant downright patriotic, which is a bit more than one can really say for either of those botanical imposters, the strawberry or the blackberry.
The trouble is, I don’t actually like blackcurrant. In fact, I dislike it quite intensely. Perhaps it’s that American side of my palate that gets continually disappointed when I see that deep purple drink and it doesn’t take like Welch’s. But I don’t like the flavour of blackcurrant in candy form either- or worse- in medicine form. So, despite its WWII heroism as a berry, the blackcurrant gives me a stiff upper lip for all the wrong reasons.
I did briefly consider the gooseberry. I mean, I’d be a fool not to. But despite its summery charms, it does seem to rather tag along with all the other berries.
So perhaps strawberries must get my vote after all. All that Tudor history, and those lovely men in white shorts whacking their balls, and I do have a sort of personal history with strawberries as well. Well not necessarily the fruit itself- I’m not madly keen- but the flavour.
Strawberry milk, to be exact.
I grew up on strawberry milk. I have adored it for as long as I can remember. For many years it was a mainstay of my “picky child” diet. In fact, during my teenage years, when I simply could not be persuaded to have a decent breakfast before a long school day, the compromise at which my mother and I arrived was a Carnation Strawberry Instant Breakfast Drink and a banana. Not much has changed. Though my diet is much improved now, I once again start my workday with a strawberry-flavoured protein shake into which I’ve blitzed a banana. So, much like the bramble bushes, my childhood has caught up with me there too. But it’s not the same thing. I doubt there’s any real strawberry in that protein shake flavouring, and Carnation Instant Breakfast was decidedly American.
By the time I had pondered this far, my blackberry syrup had cooled, and I had even had time to pop out for some of that Wall’s Cream Of Cornish Ice Cream. The blackberries themselves had tasted just as I had remembered, but turning them into a syrup to pour over the ice cream was my concession to time. A fifty-year old man experiences the blackberry pips entirely differently than a child. But ladling out the ice cream, as buttery yellow as ever, and then drizzling it with the syrup and letting them muddle just for a minute or two before that big creamy, sweet, sharp spoonful, and I was away again.
I had my answer. It may have been somewhat of a silly question to begin with, but at least I knew. The humble blackberry, baby of brambles and heir of hedgerows, free to all who are willing to endeavour on a hot summer’s day; that would always be my English berry. Foraging for them and cooking them and eating them and my English heritage runs like dark berry juice through my veins.
Now I’ve just got to find a few more before the Devil pisses on them. (Blackberries have traditions too.)
Both the recipes below will work equally well with frozen blackberries.
You will need:
- 1 pound/ 450ish g of blackberries
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1-2 tablespoons sugar
- juice of 1/2 a lemon (optional)
- Rinse the blackberries and drain.
- Heat the blackberries over a low heat with the water.
- Add a tablespoon of sugar and keep stirring gently as the blackberries start to burst and break down. Keeping the heat low means you need less water, and you get a more pure blackberry flavour.
- I like my syrup quite sharp, so add the second tablespoon of sugar only if you like yours quite sweet- all fruit sweetens as it cooks anyway. Add a squeeze or two of lemon juice if you feel it’s gone too far to the sweet.
- Once the berries have broken down cook for another minute or two until you have an ever so slightly loose syrup (it’ll thicken as it cools).
- Then set a sieve over a bowl. Pour the syrup into the sieve and keep pushing it gently through with a wooden spoon until all you have left in the sieve are the seeds. Discard them.
- Pour your syrup into your chosen container. It’ll keep in a cold fridge for a week at least.
You will need:
- 1 pound/450ish g blackberries
- 3/4cup water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- shot of cassis/berry liqueur (optional)
- Bring the water and sugar to a simmering point in a small saucepan, stirring until all the sugar has melted.
- Once the sugar has melted, take the saucepan off the heat and allow to cool.
- Rinse the berries and place them in a food processor or blender. Add about a third of the sugar syrup and blitz until smooth. Wait a couple of minutes then taste the puree. Add a bit more syrup if it’s too sharp, or a squeeze of lemon if it’s gone too sweet. If it’s got a nice balance of sharp and sweet and a good underlying tang, you’re there.
- You can add a shot of cassis or berry liqueur at this point if you have it to hand. Push the puree through a sieve to remove all the seeds, and decant into a freezable container. Place in the freezer.
- An hour and a half later, check the puree. The edges should have started to crystallize. Give the puree a good thorough whisk (you can put it back through the blender if you like but I find a good strong whisk in the container will do the trick), then pop back in the freezer.
- Repeat this process another two times over the next three hours, and your sorbet should have a lovely velvety smoothness!
- Pop it into the fridge for twenty minutes before serving. It should keep several weeks in the freezer.