Like Curious Kai, I usually have a secret blackberry stash. Unfortunately blackberries here in Central don’t seem to do that well and while I’ve been watching a secret, rather large patch locally I haven’t been getting my hopes up too much – it seems that the intense dry allows the bushes to grow and flower and even fruit but often the fruit doesn’t ripen and shrivels instead. I remember reading years ago in Tom Robbin’s Still Life With Woodpecker about blackberry bushes in Seattle growing so much with all the rain there that Woodpecker (or was it Leigh-Cheri) imagined them taking over the city. No such luck here.

Until yesterday that is, when I found a patch that was not only large and growing well but the berries were big and fat and ripe. And they are just coming on, meaning there will be picking for some weeks to come.

This patch grows near a river and is surrounded by kanuka, willow, native scrub, and lots of weeds creating a fertile and damp niche for the bramble to thrive in.

Blackberries are pretty close to my favourite fruit. I’ve been harvesting them wild for 30 years, starting in my early teens when I couldn’t believe that this intense, succulent berry was there literally free for the picking. It was my first real foraging success as a young adult, something I could do on my own and take home to make blackberry and apple crumble (can’t remember if it was me or mum that did the cooking bit). I’ve been in love with them ever since.

Blackberries arrived here in the 1800s with the British who planted them no doubt fully aware of their virtues. Unfortunately since then blackberries have become much maligned by various local bodies and DOC. I’ve not come across blackberries sprayed at berry time, but if you are concerned then phone your local council or DOC* (if you’re harvesting on public land). With a bit of prompting they should be able to tell you what’s been sprayed when. Or talk to the landowner if it’s private land.

*technically you can’t harvest anything, including introduced weeds, from a National Park without a permit, so spray enquiries are best done without mentioning food. I’m not sure about other DOC reserves.

Blackberry, Rubus fruticosus, is part of the rather large Rosaceae family, and is a very close relative of raspberry and the native bush lawyer/tataramoa. Raspberries are less common than blackberries in the wild but can sometimes be found in or around old homestead sites. Tataramoa produce delightful but small berries. By all means taste, but unless you are caretaking bush and know there are plenty to spare, please leave harvesting for the native birds. Blackberry, raspberry and tataramoa are all highly useful as medicines.

In the cooler and wetter places I would expect blackberries to be fruiting next month. It pays to keep an eye out though because you’re up against birds, possums, children and passers-by. It also pays to keep a pottle or two handy in the car for chance encounters (this is true of any wildcrafting and foraging).

I’ll be going back to the patch over the next few weeks to gather berries for eating, vinegar, honey, possibly liqueur and because it’s my first harvest in a hot dry climate I might even try drying some (ok, so I’m sure I won’t get all that done but no harm blackberry dreaming). If you’re new to blackberry harvesting, then it pays to go prepared. Gumboots and overtrousers are a boon if doing a big harvest. Often there is a bit of negotiation with the brambles so a stick or glove for your non-picking hand is useful for holding down errant branches – please take care of the plants and don’t go stomping or breaking unnecessarily. Not only is this a courtesy to the plant who is feeding you, but it ensures your path isn’t too obvious to passersby.

Blackberry and apple crumble

Here’s my peasant foodie recipe for blackberry and apple crumble (sorry, it got eaten before I could take a photo). Normally I would bake this in the oven, but I was staying somewhere without an oven so here’s the adapted frying pan version (you could do this camping pretty easily too, in any size pot as long as the heat is low). Make twice as much as you will eat because this is divine cold the next morning.

* Get a frying pan and melt some butter in it.

* Slice some apples and make a layer in the pan.

* Add a layer of blackberries.

* Add another layer of sliced apple.

* Repeat layers until the pan is 3/4 full or you run out of blackberries.

* Make a layer of rolled oats. I like the large ones.

* Add quite a few knobs of butter and some cinnamon.

* Pour some water over the mix, wetting the oats as much as possible, until there is a decent amount of water in the pan (say half full).

* Bring to a simmer with a lid on, and cook slowly until all the oats are steamed and wet through and the apple is soft.

Goes well with yogurt, cream or ice cream, naturally, but is also good on its own. Best served not too hot.

Blackberry and apple are perfect partners. The local wild apples aren’t quite ripe yet but hopefully will be before the blackberries finish. In the recipe above I used some semi-sweet apples from the organic shop, which collapsed and disappeared in the cooking, leaving a sweet, gooey mass for the blackberries to stew in.

More recipes

Feeling inspired? Here’s some ideas from other bloggers:

If you’re lucky to get blackberries, rosehips and apples all ripe at the same time, then English herbwife Sarah Head offers her hedgerow tonic recipe. She also has a delightful looking blackberry cordial recipe (scroll half way down).

I’m hoping to make some blackberry liqueur similar to this schnapps recipe.

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