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What is the blackberry?

Ripe for the picking


Google “blackberry” and the first several pages of hits refer to the handy little device made in Canada by Research in Motion.  Even Wikipedia’s first reference is to the electronic device.  Now that’s a good algorithm.  

The blackberry, in fact, is a “...climbing thorny rosaceous shrub...”, according to my Oxford Dictionary, which doesn’t mention RIM’s device at all.  And according to the green thumb bible Botanica, the blackberry is an "... aggregate, consisting of over 2,000 micro-species...".  Blackberry describes the shrub, the fruit and the act of picking. 

The blackberries were late this summer.  They stayed green on the vine well into August.  Eventually they turned a Prada shade of magenta that deepened into irridescent blue-black like Superman’s hair.  Blackberries should slip off the stem into your hand.  Too ripe and they crumble into their constituent little seed pods.  Not ripe enough and they will resist picking, leaving your fingers looking bloody.  

Speaking of which, the blackberry is a member of the rose family, and the thorns bite deep.  So when you go blackberrying (doesn’t it sound archaic, like going a-Maying?) wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, socks and shoes.   You’ll find blackberry patches in most  neighbourhoods, usually along back alleys, gullies, railway tracks or in empty lots.

Ours is a ten-minute walk away, along a railway siding. Over the years pickers have trampled pathways into the tangled brambles.  But the footing is still dodgy.  Somewhere beneath the matted weeds are two sets of railway tracks.  Closer to the surface are broken bottles and weathered boards with rusty nails.  There are signs of human habitation, including clothing, bits of bedding and stuff you don’t want to step in.  This year there is also a bike, no doubt stolen and stashed a while ago for quick retrieval, but forgotten and now already half swallowed up by the vines.

But if you watch your step, the reward is worth the effort.  The picking is realtively easy, and the warm sun on the ripening berries produces a redolence that defines late summer.   It took us about half an hour to pick as much as we needed.

At home we washed the blackberries, measured them into a big pot and added an equal amount of sugar.  No pectin is needed – the seeds produce enough pectin to thicken the jam.  We took turns stirring for about 45 minutes as the jam bubbled volcanically over a medium heat.

When the mixture was thick enough (put a little on a plate left in the freezer -- it shouldn't run), we poured the jam into prewashed sealer jars that had been sterilized in the oven for several minutes.  You can process the jars in boiling water after filling, but we find all the lids eventually seal on their own.   The jam will keep for years, but rarely lasts until next blackberry season.

The seeds go back into the pot, with enough white vinegar to cover them, and enough sugar to take the edge off the vinegar.  That mixture also cooks for about 45 minutes, after which the liquid is strained into jars and the seeds go in the compost.   The vinaigrette will keep in the fridge up to a year, and can be used undiluted on salads.  The taste is sublime.

Time elapsed from picking to the finished products – about four hours.  Yield from 12 cups of berries – five pint jars of jam and well over a litre of vinaigrette.  Total cost – about three dollar’s worth of sugar and a buck’s worth of vinegar.  Savouring summer in the form of blackberry jam on a gray February morning – priceless.





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