Of all the legacies of the heatwave, such as African Savanna-coloured lawns and hosepipe bans, one benign sweet gift from nature is a glut of delicious berries, most noticeably, blackberries.
Searing temperatures have delivered a bumper crop of strawberries, cherries, blueberries, and blackberries this summer, reports the British Berry Growers Association. In many cases, commercial crops have ripened early, with harvests brought forward by weeks.
“There are 43 per cent more blackberries, versus this time last year,” confirms Rob Harrison, Commercial Director at Berry Gardens, UK’s largest supplier of berries and cherries.
Anyone who has spent time in the countryside recently cannot fail to have noticed the abundance of blackberries (brambles) growing in profusion.
“A bright warm spring meant most of the country’s blackberries flowered heavily, turning to fruit that have taken advantage of the sunny months to ripen in gluts and earlier than normal,” explains Mark Diacono, cook, author and former head of gardening at River Cottage.
So, it’s an excellent time to go blackberry picking – or blackberrying – a much-loved British pastime dating back thousands of years. I can’t think of anything lovelier to do on a late summer’s day than grabbing a basket, a couple of kids and perhaps a dog, and heading off blackberrying.
The challenge, as for all berries, is that blackberries over-soften quickly once picked, so they need to be eaten or cooked quickly, or stashed in the freezer to use later. (The fruits are not really berries but clusters of drupelets – or stone fruit – each with a tiny pit nestling inside).
If you freeze your bounty, spread them out on a tray first so they don’t clump together; once frozen, transfer to zip-lock freezer bags.
Whether fresh or frozen, foraged or shop-bought (commercially-grown specimens are likely to be much sweeter, with less tang than wild ones), blackberries are sublime in all manner of things.
Their tart-sweetness and deep flavour are delicious on their own, of course, or paired simply. Drop them into a bowl of cool yogurt, squish on top of ricotta on toast or turn a muted bowl of porridge purple with a handful added while cooking.
Blackberries get on famously with other fruits of the season: snuggle them up in pies, tarts and crumbles with late-season peaches, plums and nectarines, or autumnal pears and apples. Or make an endlessly versatile compote. Place the fruit in a pan with a little sugar or honey (only if you think they need sweetening) and a good splash of water. Gently simmer until the berries have slumped enough to release their purple juices. Swirl the compote through softly whipped cream for a blackberry fool (or add crumbled meringue for a mess), or spoon over a cheesecake.
Alternatively, whip 600ml double cream, beat in one 397g tin of condensed milk, then fold in cold blackberry compote (strain if you find the teeth-sticking seeds annoying). Spoon into a loaf tin and freeze to make ice cream: no churning required.
They also add a sweetish burst of flavour to savoury. Try folding a handful or two through a salad made from roasted beetroot, cooked grains (such as spelt, freekeh or barley), a handful of fresh herbs and nuts (walnuts or almonds) and a vinaigrette dressing.
Roast meat and blackberries are happy companions. Add a handful to a roasting tray with venison or game birds and squish them into the pan juices to incorporate into a fruity gravy.
Perhaps the glut could, deliciously, drive you to drink. A great aunt of mine adored Blackberry Nip, a sickly-sweet port-based drink. But Diacono has much tastier suggestions. Add a dozen gently squished blackberries to a mojito, the classic Cuban cocktail made from white rum, sugar, lime juice, soda water, and mint. “They add a fine touch of summer-into-autumn depth,” he says. Or place a kilo of blackberries in a jar with a bottle of whisky and an inch of sugar. “This will give you an astonishing drink,” Diacono says.