Sláinte! The Hedgerow Harvest
On my second trip to Ireland half a dozen years ago, a fellow passenger in the Aer Lingus jumbo asked me, “Do you know what happened when St. Patrick got rid of all the snakes?” I took the bait and queried, “What?” With a grin, he replied, “He transformed them into roads!” The next few days of driving around the island gave proof to the man’s words.
Sure enough, the back roads of Erin twist and turn like an agitated serpent permanently petrified in tarmac. More than that, I discovered that my car was forever driving through tunnels of greenery.
Wherever tree branches did not meet overhead, high stone walls and hedgerows of bushes impeded my view of the scenery. I caught glimpses through pasture of fields laid out in designs that resembled pieced patchwork quilts of appliquéd velvet and corduroy. Occasionally I spied the rains of a church or derelict farmhouse through gaps in the tangled shrubbery. Here and there massive gates guarded the entry to what I guessed was a fabulous manor home. I remember wishing I were behind the wheel of a Land Rover instead of a low-slung compact.
At first the tunnel was just a green blur, but eventually the gardener in me rose to the surface and I began trying to identify the plants. A host of ivies tumbled over seemingly endless stone walls built by work crews during the Famine years. The Virginia Creeper that clung to tree trunks and covered the exteriors of churches was responding to the change of season (it was late August) by turning mottled shades of burnt orange, red and burgundy. Miles of road were flanked by hedgerows of fuchsias, all densely covered in the plant’s unique dangling bell-like blossoms. I was jealous of that. Back home in Southern California, fuchsias are so prized and rare that small hanging baskets of the plant sell at nurseries for upwards of $20 each, and here were entire stretches of roadway lined on both sides by fuchsia hedges towering seven or more feet above ground level!
I admit to having been unable to identify most of the plants, but one type of leaf seemed to be repeated more than most. Near the end of my trip, the mystery was solved. As I drove south from Sligo (where the dazzling fuchsia hedges seem to be everywhere), I spotted an older woman standing with her back to the road oblivious to all but the bush she was inspecting branch by branch. I had to stop. When I inquired what she was doing, she replied, “Why, I’m picking berries, dear.”
Sweeping her hand in an arc that took in the entire roadway, she added, “The hedgerows are full of them this time of year.” Sure enough, when I peered closely I could see plenty of plump dark purple blackberries dotting the wall of green.
“It’s a pity you’re traveling,” she said, “otherwise you could go home and make some lovely jam.” The taste sample she offered from the harvest half-filling the sizeable wicker basket she had slung over her other arm decided my next move. I trotted back to the car, dumped the coffee out of my travel thermos, joined in her quest, and spent the next half hour chatting while we stripped a section of bush of its bounty.
I nibbled while I worked, and my fingers quickly became purple with berry juice. “Careful you don’t go getting that on your fine dress, because the stare won’t come out,” she cautioned. “In the old days we used these berries to dye cloth.” I tested her warning on a tissue. The color would have been fit for a king’s robes. Mrs. McCaffrey (for that was the dear lady’s name) went on to say how her grandchildren (she had ten) loved her blackberry crumble, and how her husband (`God rest his soul, he’s dead these nine years now’) asked her to marry him while they were berry-picking on `Blaeberry Sunday.’
Blackberry Sunday (also known as Bilberry or Fraughan Sunday) is celebrated on the last Sunday of July or the first Sunday of August. For centuries it has marked the beginning of the harvest season and a time to enjoy the `first fruits’ of the land. The blackberries begin appearing then on hedgerows and in the vicinity of natural springs, as do Ireland’s tiny wild bilberries (fraughans) that are similar to American blueberries and are found in Ireland on hillsides and in bogs. Regardless of which fruit one craves, berry picking is a great excuse to take a picnic into the country and while away one of the last balmy days of summer.
Irish cooks transform their hedgerow and hillside harvests into luscious pies and crumbles, crumbly scones, creamy fools, and jams and jellies by the jar. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition bible The Composition of Foods, both blueberries and blackberries contain large amounts of vitamin C. You’ll get no argument from the Irish on that count. Legend holds that when St. Colman grew weak after long periods of penitent fasting, eating bilberries invariably restored him to health. Mrs. McCaffrey told me that blackberries too are a miraculous fruit. Mr. McCaffrey always set aside some of their annual harvest and made Blackberry Wine which he would sip `whenever he felt an ague coming on and it fixed him up just fine.’ Mrs. McCaffrey couldn’t tell me how to make the elixir, but I searched until I found a recipe. There aren’t any bilberries in Los Angeles but we do have blackberries. Unfortunately, I won’t be finding any by the side of the road. Sláinte! ♦
2 pounds fresh blackberries
Enough hot water to make 1 gallon liquid when mixed with the berries
3-6 cups sugar
Let the berries sit out in a large bowl for about 4 weeks, stirring them occasionally. The berries will get a rank smell and may even begin to mold. With mortar and pestle, crush the berries into as smooth a pulp as possible. Add the hot water and stir in the sugar. Pour the wine into casks to ferment for 8-10 months. The longer it is kept, the better it will be. The wine will have to be aired every few days to allow building gases to escape.
–(Celtic Folklore Cooking – Joanne Asala)
Author’s Note: I haven’t tried making this brew as attempting a fermentation process always makes me nervous, so I can’t attest to its success.
Blackberry Muffins w/ Lemon
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup butter, softened
2 large eggs
2/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup fresh blackberries
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 350F degrees. Grease and flour a 12–cup muffin pan, or line the cups with paper cupcake liners. In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
In another bowl, using an electric mixer, cream together the granulated sugar and butter until light yellow and fluffy, about four minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each. Stir in the milk and vanilla. Slowly add the dry ingredients, blending well. Gently fold in the blackberries.
Spoon the batter into the muffin cups until they are about two–thirds full. Bake until a toothpick inserted in a muffin comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Lay a sheet of wax paper under a wire rack and place the muffin pan on the rack to cool for 20 minutes.
While the muffins are baking, combine the confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice in a small bowl, and blend well. Drizzle half of this glaze over the hot muffins. When the muffins have cooled for 20 minutes, drizzle the remaining glaze over them. Serve warm or at a room temperature. Makes 12 muffins.
– (McGuire’s Irish Pub Cookbook – Jessie Tirsch)
Apple and Blackberry Pie
For the Shortcrust Pastry:
6 oz/175g plain flour
1.5oz/40g margarine of butter
a pinch of salt
cold water to mix
For the filling:
1lb/450g cooking apples (4 medium apples)
8oz/225g blackberries, washed
To glaze: milk and granulated sugar
Pre–heat oven to 425ºF/220ºC
Make the pastry, then leave the rest while you peel and slice the apples straight into a pie–dish. Then sprinkle in the blackberries and the sugar.
Now, roll out the pastry, about 1 inch (2.5 cm) larger than the pre–dish, then cut out a 1 inch (2.5 cm) strip to fit the edge of the dish. Dampen the edge, then fit on the strip of pastry, pressing it firmly, and dampen that too. Then press the rest of the pastry over that to form a lid, knock up and flute the edges and make a steam hole in the center. Make some decorative leaves with the pastry trimmings (optional).
Brush the pastry with milk and sprinkle on a light dusting of granulated sugar.
Place the pie on a baking sheet on a high shelf and bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375ºF/190ºC and continue baking for further 30 minutes. Then, using a skewer, take out a piece of apple from the center to test if it’s cooked – if it still feels very firm, give it another five minutes
Serve hot with chilled pouring cream to mingle with the juices.
– Recipe and photo at top from Delia Smith’s complete Illustrated Cookery Course.