Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus)

Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus)

Autumn equinox always arrives with a shock: summer is over, winter is on the approach! How can that be? It seems only such a short while ago that we laughed and played in the summer sun! But all too soon I hear the equinox winds hurling outside my window and watch dark, ominous clouds chasing each other across the sky. I sigh. The last of the foraging days are just around the corner. From now until Samhain or All Saints Day, a flurry of activity lies ahead: I will be gathering mushrooms, berries, and nuts to fill the winter larder.

Strawberries, raspberries, red currents – berry season is already over. Almost – except for one! A sweet reminder of the summer days will take us to the threshold of winter: the lowly Blackberry (aka Bramble). How we curse it in spring and summer when we find our passage across a field blocked by its dangling thorny limbs, when its barbs tear our clothes, tangle our hair, or scratch our skin! When bramble blocks the way it means business. Although it is not impossible to overcome, most will choose an easier route than to engage in direct combat.

Yet, who can resist the sweet berries once summer is over? From the end of August to the beginning of November Bramble bestows a seemingly inexhaustible harvest. Rows of jam jars that line the larder are abundant proof.

Bramble is extremely undemanding. It pops up just about anywhere and is often cursed as a weed. But, like many other so-called weeds, it bears a precious secret.

Blackberries highly nutritious and rich in vitamins, especially Vitamin C and A, and K, as well as in minerals, especially manganese and fibre. They also contain flavonoids and tannins, which means that they are not only delicious fieldfare or raw material for jams, but can also be used medicinally.

The tannins act as an astringent. Medicinally Blackberries (as well as the Blackberry leaves, picked in spring) can be used to tighten the gums and to inhibit bleeding. It makes a good remedy for the upset tummies of small children, can arrest diarrhoea, settle a nervous stomach and even soothe a stomach-flu.

The leaves can be brewed like tea. Sometimes they are mixed with raspberry and strawberry leaves to make a refreshing general-purpose household tea. Their diuretic and diaphoretic properties useful in a blood cleansing tea and help to reduce a fever.

Extremely valuable is their ability to lower blood sugar levels, which would commend them to diabetics as an alternative to regular tea or coffee. The leaves are also astringent and can be used as a gargle to soothe a sore throat. The berries or their juice are beneficial for treating hoarseness. Singers and speakers should make ample use of this freely available and effective remedy.

On a more spiritual note, the lowly Blackberry flower has an honoured place among Dr. Bach’s flower essences. He saw it as a remedy for confusion. Bramble essence is said to help one realise the ‘essential truth’ or underlying pattern of a situation and is thought to assist in finding solutions to a problem, bring about mental clarity, and to aid concentration and memory.

Recipes

 

As blackberries are so commonly found in the hedgerows there are a plethora of recipes for cordials, jams, jellies, ice cream, mousse, pies, chutneys, and tons more. I prefer the fresh berries straight off the vine with just a little cream, but here are another couple of favourites: 

Apple and Blackberry Crumble:

Filling

  • 3 Large cooking apples
  • 1lb Blackberries
  • 5oz Sugar or Honey
  • Cinnamon
  • Lemon
  • ½ oz Butter

Crust

  • 2 oz Butter
  • 2 oz Rolled oats
  • 2 oz Flour
  • 1 oz Walnuts (crushed)
  • 1 oz Sugar or Honey
  • Preheat the oven to 200C/400F

Peel and cut the apples into small chunks. Melt the butter and stir in the sugar and cinnamon. Cook until it carmelises, stirring frequently. After about 5 min add the apple pieces, lemon, and walnuts. Cook until the apples are getting soft.

Prepare the crumble topping by rubbing the softened butter, sugar, flour, and oats into a crumbly mixture.

Take the apples off the heat and add the blackberries. Stir in gently. Transfer the filling into a shallow ovenproof casserole and sprinkle the crumble topping on top. Bake for about 20 minutes at about 180°C or 350°F until the topping turns a light golden brown.

Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Blackberry Cornbread

2 cups white cornmeal

¼ tsp. soda

¼ tsp. salt

1 cup buttermilk

1 egg

1 cup maple syrup

1 ½ cup blackberries

Mix cornmeal, soda, salt, buttermilk, egg in a medium-sized mixing bowl; stir well. Add maple syrup, stir well. Add blackberries, stir into the mixture without mashing them. Pour into a well-greased iron skillet and bake slowly at 350°F/180°C until top begins to brown. Reduce heat to 200°F/100°C until cooked.

Acorns

Acorns

I don’t know why I have been ignoring acorns all this time. But this year, out of nowhere, it suddenly struck me that I should give them a try. Oaks are quite plentiful in my region and thus acorns are not in short supply. And so, I unexpectedly found myself filling my pockets with acorns a couple of weeks ago. Acorns actually make for easy foraging – they are plentiful, not prickly and big enough to fill bags without too much effort.

But before you start picking, it may be worth your while to acquaint yourself with the different species that grow in your area. Different species are often found in the same habitat. Oaks (and acorns) come in many different varieties, shapes, and sizes but not all are terribly tasty, (in fact, some taste terrible).

Acorns are rich in tannins, a bitter, acrid substance that was once used for tanning animal hides. Tannins are very astringent and in large amounts, they are toxic to the kidneys, liver, and the entire digestive tract. They also interfere with iron absorption. This is why foragers prefer to search out varieties that are a bit sweeter and lack high levels of tannin. Fortunately, in most parts of Europe, the species that has the lowest tannin concentration is also one of the most common. In the US there is a wide variety of species and all of them, even the bitterest have been used for food.

In the eastern United States, Quercus alba, or common white oak, was generally considered the preferred species to gather, since it is naturally quite sweet. In the Southwest, gamble oak was used, although the acorns are not big. But, just about every kind of acorn has been utilized for food – bitter or not. To make the bitter varieties more palatable, the tannins must be removed. Native people have been very innovative in finding ways to accomplish this task. They used many different methods to render acorns more palatable and to preserve them for later use.

Some indigenous peoples stored the nuts in underground vaults that they would dig near a river. Stored in such vaults the nuts turned completely black but could be kept fresh for years (unless the squirrels should find them). But a more common method is to thoroughly dry or roast the nuts and to store them in jars for later use.

The dried nuts can then be ground into flour as needed. The flour is placed into a finely woven cloth and carefully rinsed to remove the tannins until the water runs clear. Any flour that is not used immediately must be thoroughly dried (e.g. at low temperature in the oven) to prevent it from getting moldy. The flour will ‘cake up’ and must be ground again before use.

Alternatively, you can boil the acorns in several changes of water and then dry them. Gentle roasting will dry them completely. Once thoroughly dry, they can be ground.

acorn biscuits

Acorn biscuits 

Acorns are very nutritious. They contain not only fat and carbohydrates but are also rich in proteins and B vitamins.

 

There are a surprising number of recipes out there for making acorn goodies – acorn grits, cakes, bread, and soup. Coarsely ground acorns (grits) can be used to replace nuts in many recipes, although they may add rather a lot of crunch. Acorn flour can be used to replace a portion of regular flour in just about any recipe. Mix flours in a ratio of 1:1 or 1:3, depending on how nutty a flavour you want to achieve. Experiment to create your own favourite recipes.

My experiment was based on a savoury biscuit recipe that normally calls for cashews. These crackers came out great, except that I should have ground the flour much finer. I used grits, but they turned quite crunchy in the oven. Still, on the whole, they were quite tasty.

Savoury Acorn Biscuits:

Ingredients:

  • 150g Acorn flour
  • 150g wholemeal flour
  • 100g cold butter
  • 1 tsp. curry powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tbs. creme fraiche
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 – 3 tbs ground parmesan cheese

Place the flours into a bowl. Add the cold butter, in small chunks, and add the curry powder and salt. Add 1 egg yolk and the creme fraiche. Blend all ingredients to create a smooth shortcrust dough. Cover and put into the fridge for 1 hour.

Line a cookie sheet with baking paper and preheat the oven to 200°C (392°F).

Divide dough into two parts and roll out thinly (to approx 3 millimetres) between two layers of cling film.

Cut 4cm cookies (e.g. with a water glass) and transfer to cookie sheet.

Mix second egg yolk with 2 spoons of water and glaze each cookie

Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese

Bake on the middle rack for 15 min until golden brown.

 

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