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Blackberry picking with nana wasn’t just a joy, it was a delightful education

August 26th, 2022 11:45 AM

By Southern Star Team

Maria remembers the joy of picking the blackberries with her mum and grandmother.

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Maria C Henry recalls the rural ritual of picking blackberries and making jam with her mother and grandmother in West Cork. The day involved more than just plucking the ripe fruit from the brambles. She learnt about nature, traditions, and even storytelling

IT’S that time of year again when the signs of blackberry season are upon us.

Mother nature has her way of letting us know when the brief window for foraging is here.

Once the berries are red, it’s only a matter of time before they become black, shiny and plump; ready for picking.

Like lots of other households, blackberry picking, jam and pie making have been a tradition in my family for generations.

West Cork is a great place for the berries with the big juicy bobbles. As a kid, it was a great day out, a gathering of the clan and a day at my nana’s house.

Preparation began before a single berry was picked. My mum bought extra packets of sugar every week on the run-up.

She washed and dried dozens of glass jars. Vessels for collecting the fruit were gathered.

On the chosen day, the family would head to nana’s cottage. On arrival, we were greeted with a big fry-up.

The event began with a very noisy breakfast. Nana filled our bellies with sausages, rashers, eggs and toast, and washed down with cups of sweet tea.

After breakfast, we all changed out of our good clothes. Even if the day was sweltering, long sleeves and trousers were a must. Otherwise, arms and legs would get ripped to shreds from the thorns on the tangle of the briars. Wellingtons were the best footwear.

We scurried along the boreens, down the pastures to the hedgerows or to the edge of the fields. They were the old, trusty places with the berries in abundance. These were the best spots for picking nature’s free sweets. The berries that looked glossy, black and swollen, they’re the juiciest ones.

To be a blackberry picker, you had to be in good shape. You cannot have bad knees, bad hips or a bad back. You need to be able to stoop low and stretch up high. Those berries had a habit of growing in the hardest-to-reach places, like arching stems of the long bramble.

Bowls, buckets, margarine tubs, and water pails were used as containers. They all needed to be filled. Of course, siblings and cousins delighted in the outdoor pursuit and made a competition out of who could fill their buckets first. The prize was a great cheer and praise for being brilliant by my mum and nana. This was all we needed to egg us on to win the overall illusionary competition.

Mum reminded us of the county code. Keep an eye out for sweet dark fruits. Only the succulent, shiny berries like glistening onyx were required. The fruit should pull free with only a slight tug. We must leave the red and green berries on the briar, sur’ they were as hard as knots and had yet to ripen.

Those berries were waiting for the sunshine to do its magic. They were for the people that came after us. We left the overripe berries on the bramble for the birds and the wildlife. The animals needed to eat, too. You could tell from the feel of the berry if it was ripe.

Throughout the day, we would chat about what animals would enjoy eating the berries. All the spiders we met along the way were named, and we tried not to disturb the weaving of their webs. We also learnt the names of the various birds and trees on our ramble. It was a great way of keeping us youngsters interested in the job at hand, and stopped us from getting bored.

Mum and nana would tell us stories of times past when they picked in the same places with ancestors long gone. Stories of my mother and grandmother as a child were awesome, as we never saw them other than the loving old women they were. It was amazing to think of them as little people like us and the different times they lived in.

Once we started picking, it didn’t take long to fall under the blackberry spell. One berry for the mouth and one berry for the bucket. The evidence clearly seen by the purple moustaches we proudly wore.

After several hours of picking the scrumptious fruit and every vessel was full, our work in the great outdoors was done. After our return to the house, we enjoyed glasses of TK lemonade and Taytos; a rare treat.

In the meantime, my mum placed a big metal pot on the stove. The washed blackberries, along with some peeled apple slices, were placed in the pan with some water. Mum added bags of sugar, and she left the fruit to simmer until it became soft and pulpy. It didn’t take long for that sweet smell to fill the house. She stirred the pot constantly. Mum tested the fruit when the setting point was ready by dropping a little jam on a cold plate. When she pushed it with her finger and it wrinkled, it was done.

A bowl of warm, sweet and sticky jam, along with freshly baked brown soda bread, took centre place on the table. In a flash, it was mopped up, and the bowl cleaned. This was always the best tasting jam, the one straight out of the pan.

Later, when the jam cooled down, we poured it into the saved jars and we sealed the top with candle wax. After placing white sticky labels on the front of the jar with that day’s date in our best handwriting, the job was complete.

Days later, the jars of homemade jam were stored for the long Irish winter and others distributed to family, friends, and neighbours.

Right now, in West Cork, the signs of the picking season are upon us. And with all the talk of the cost-of-living crisis, blackberry foraging is a great idea for free nutritious food and a great family day out. You don’t have to make jam – there are plenty of other delicious treats to make. The internet is full of ideas and recipes like pies and crumbles, smoothies and berry cereal. The berries can be frozen, so you can stock up like a squirrel.

Blackberries are a gift. When you think summer is over, and all the good stuff is gone, they’re the present.

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