I must be honest, we spent a good chunk of Spring ripping out almost all the brambles from our garden. The previous owners of our wee white hoose had been elderly, and from what we can gather they had just left the garden to go to seed once the house was on the market, so the grounds were all pretty wild and almost entirely overgrown by the time we moved in. I hadn’t considered that we were getting rid of about ten kilos of hypothetical blackberries, I was focused only on clearing enough thicket to make space for chickens. Luckily – I think? – the small section of the garden that we left to go wild over the summer is now a tangled mass of arching bramble shoots, so when the wee one and I went out to forage for berries yesterday we weren’t disappointed.
After an hour of picking we had almost a kilo of bramble berries, plus a quart of elderberries from a tree in our local woodland park, just down the road from us. I’m going to leave those to ripen for a couple of days before using them to make elderberry syrup.
Yesterday morning we went on a guided walk with the North Ayrshire Countryside Ranger, learning about foraging, and about native plants and trees and their associated folklore. I think Esme’s favourite part was finding out how to measure the height of any tree with nothing more than a stick and her own two feet. I particularly enjoyed the folklore bits, of course. Did you know that the Celts equated hazelnuts with wisdom and poetic inspiration, for example? Me neither!
The most common folk tale surrounding brambles is the warning not to eat the fruit after Michaelmas Day, the feast of the archangel Saint Michael, as this is the day on which he cast Lucifer out of heaven, and Lucifer landed in a bramble thicket and cursed the brambles, and spat on them. In a similar story from Greek mythology, the arrogant Bellerophon dared to ride Pegasus to the heights of Mount Olympus, enraging the Gods. Zeus sent a gadfly to sting Pegasus, who bucked and sent Bellerophon flying through the sky until he eventually landed in a bramble bush, which blinded him. He lived the rest of his life as an outcast, in misery.
In Scottish mythology, it is the bogle who spits, or even pees on the bramble berries to discourage you from eating them. Similar to the English puck, and the Irish púca, a bogle is, ‘a freakish spirit, who delights rather to perplex and frighten mankind than either to serve or seriously to hurt them‘ (from Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales, by George Douglas). In Popular Tales of the West Highlands, J. F. Campbell tells of a young baron of Badenoch who stumbles across a bogle with a red hand, dripping with bramble juice. The baron reports the bogle for stealing fruit, and the creature is punished. After receiving his punishment, the bogle, in his rage, returns to the brambles and defiles them.
As always, these folk tales have their roots in common sense. By Michaelmas the bramble berries, having been out for a couple of months, become flyblown and start to rot. They can subsequently be infected by various moulds, rendering them inedible, and the bitter taste of the tannin in the fruit becomes much stronger and unpleasant.
Esme and I broke the cardinal rule and picked our berries on the 14th of October, but in our defence, all of our home grown produce has been about a month late this year because of the cold spell in the summer, and it seems that brambles are no different. I can assure you they tasted fantastic, regardless of the date. We used ours to make jam.
- 600g cooking apples, peeled and chopped
- 125ml water
- 600g blackberries
- 2 heaped tsps ground cinnamon
- 1kg granulated sugar
- juice of 1 lemon
- 1/2 tsp butter
- Wash your bramble berries, picking out any foliage or twigs. Leave to drain in a sieve or colander while you prep your jars.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F. Clean 5 450g glass jars and lids, scrubbing them in hot soapy water and rinsing well. Place the wet jars in the oven to dry out. Turn off the oven after ten minutes and leave the jars in there until you're ready to use them - keeping the jars hot ensures the glass won't crack when you pour the hot jam into them.
- Put a few small plates into the freezer. You'll use these for testing the setting point of the jam.
- Add the chopped apples and the water to a large pan and warm over medium heat for a few minutes. Add the bramble berries and cinnamon. Cook for five minutes, or until the bramble berries have released their juices.
- Add the sugar and the lemon juice to the pan and stir well until the sugar has completely dissolved (about five minutes).
- Bring the mixture to a boil, and maintain a rolling boil (approx 104°C) for 15 minutes.
- Take one of your small plates out of the freezer and spoon a teaspoon of hot jam on to it. Allow it to cool, then run a finger through the centre of your jam puddle. If the jam is set, it will hold its shape and the channel you made with your finger will remain clear. If the channel floods, your jam is too runny. Return it to the heat for a few minutes before testing it again.
- Once your jam has reached setting point, turn off the heat and add the half teaspoon of butter to the pan. Stir until dissolved. The butter causes any scum or foam that formed on the surface of the jam to dissipate.
- Take your jars out of the oven and place on a heat proof mat. Carefully fill the jars with the jam mix. I find it easiest to first tip the hot jam into a large measuring jug, and fill the jars from that. Screw the lids on tightly.
- Your jam should last for about eight weeks once opened, or two years unopened.