The ubiquitous hedgerows, which seem to line every road and lane in England, are meant to harbor an astonishing variety of wildlife year-round . . . but there’s a particular moment in September when human foragers can be glimpsed picking their way through the bramble. When the blackberries start to ripen, to change from red to deepest purple, it’s one of those unmistakable signals that the season is about to change. I have this fanciful notion that their sweetness is a concentration of summer sun, because the blackberries begin to shrivel and fade away as the days of long light wane.
I have an English friend who says that the blackberries disappear with the first frost. This Indian Summer September has gone on and on, though, and there were still juicy berries for the plucking when we went walking this week. Perhaps we can gather enough to make one more blackberry crumble before the summer slips entirely away.
Maybe it’s because I had the most suburban of childhoods, but I get an otherwise unaccountable thrill from edibles that come straight from the bush, tree or ground – as opposed to a plastic-wrapped, boxed bundle from the grocery store. There is something about foraged food that is particularly exciting; maybe because it plays on some pioneer fantasy that I had as a child, maybe because it is free!
The first summer that we lived in England, my youngest daughter and I discovered a footpath that climbs from our road to farmland at a higher altitude. At first the path is dark and densely thicketed on both sides, but as you climb the hill it opens up to pasture and cornfields that catch the sun. Occasionally we will run across a dog-walker, but usually we have the place to ourselves, and it has become our tradition to pick blackberries there.
We will fill one silver bowl each, and that is enough for some casual eating plus one large blackberry crumble. Although my daughter will sometimes eat a bowl of blackberries with a bit of sugar and cream, I think that they taste best when subjected to slow heat. After some experimentation, I have arrived at a crumble recipe that seems to bring out all of their best qualities. There are dozens of variations on the crumble -- not to mention the cobbler -- but this one is simple and elegant. It is easy enough for a child to make, but delicious enough to serve to company. In England, it would traditionally be served after Sunday lunch. (If you are fortunate enough to have leftovers, they are delicious – cold or warmed-up – for breakfast.)
(slightly adapted from Tamasin’s Kitchen Bible)
5 to 6 cups of blackberries (ideally, fresh from the hedgerows)
3 to 4 ounces of sugar (depending on how sweet you like them)
2 tablespoons of plain flour
8 ounces of flour
3 ounces of sugar
6 ounces unsalted butter
Preheat an oven to 190C/375 F.
Gently wash your blackberries in a colander. Transfer them to a baking dish – I use an oval corning ware. (The size of your dish is not terribly important for this recipe; the berries should fill it just past half-way.) Sprinkle the berries with the sugar and flour and gently mix through.
For the crumble: you can either go low-tech or high-tech on this one. If you have a food processor, put all of the ingredients in the bowl with the sharp blade and simply pulse until you have a crumbly texture. If you are using your fingers, rub the butter into the flour/sugar mixture with your fingertips. Again, when it achieves a crumbly texture it is ready.
Spread the crumble evenly on top of the prepared berries.
You will bake it for around 40 minutes, or just until the crumble is golden – very, very lightly browned.
The finished crumble should be as light and buttery as shortbread, with juicy, sweet berries underneath. A blackberry/apple combination is also very nice. Most people like some ice cream or custard on top, but I like it perfectly plain.