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New fruit growers often seem to get told “don’t plant blackberries” – they take up too much space, they’ll get in the way, they’re scruffy, and above all you can pick them everywhere in the wild.
But what if you happen to rather like blackberries? They’re a very useful fruit in the kitchen, make good wine, liqueur and cordial, the flowers and fruit are beautiful and popular for all sorts of garden residents from bumblebees to butterflies and birds, and their spiney canes are pretty good for security too.
Add to this that no, actually not everyone can pick them everywhere in the wild. You may not have time, wild ones are highly variable, in some areas the local canine/vulpine/automobile population can make it unpalatable or even dangerous.
Even if you do find a patch of deliciousness, these days foraging is terribly now, darling, and someone may well beat you to the best and most convenient ones (or you may simply feel a bit outshone, lugging your recycled Sainsbury carrier when everyone else seems to have a tasteful Cath Kidston floral tote and just the right type of floaty dress).
In our garden we’ve managed to fit a generous stretch of pretty high-yielding, plump-fruited, and fairly convenient plants that produce all the berries a couple, their friends and family, and a hungry Labrador could need (I suspect hungry Labrador is a tautology). The overgrown suburban garden was the main attraction of buying the house we live in now (it certainly wasn’t the nine coal scuttles, killer gas fires and unbelievably brown 1960s nylon carpets). And with this garden came an apple tree to renovate, wild-sown or feral raspberries and a number of brambles. What to do with them? They are nasty to fall over or scratch yourself on. The ones in our garden are quite vigorous and well established. And some of them had particularly big, good and tasty fruit.
The simple solution was to let them get on with growing but tame them and encourage them to keep out of the way of bare legs and distracted gardeners. One boundary is a simple wire mesh fence, which was fine for keeping the neighbours in their place, but not much good for privacy. Over the years, my better half pruned, trimmed and wove the best plants along this fence, staking here and there to support it.
It makes a substantial hedge in summer – the time when you are most likely to be wandering out in the garden in your nightdress – and causes no trouble to anyone. There is some work involved keeping it in check from our side but because it’s so robust it can take a good tight pruning and doesn’t impinge on our neighbours.
The plants get lots of sun along the length of the hedge and like all greenery provide good “sound insulation”. And of course, from budding to leaf-fall, there’s buzzing and tweeting and fluttering to distract you from the inevitable suburban summer symphony of lawn mowers.
This stretch of bramble hedge produces plenty for jam, puddings, jellies, and one of our favourite summer treats, blackberry bread. I picked up the idea from Nigel Slater in the Guardian but he called it Blackberry Focaccia and involved olive oil, which I thought was misguided if not actually downright sinister.
So, now we make a plain white bread dough, sometimes with some milk in the liquid. Flatten it out and stud it generously with ripe but not too squishy blackberries. Roll it in to a sausage to distribute the fruits through the dough (they’ll get squashed, but not pulverised), rest it for a few minutes then press it out flattish again. Top with more berries and a sprinkle over a couple of teaspoons of sugar depending on your taste and the fruit, but do use some sugar on the top, for reasons explained below.
Prove and bake like a normal loaf, and you’ll wind up with a crunchy, slightly caramelised topping and jammy pockets inside the loaf. It’s not a million miles away from a large, slightly less fatty doughnut, and is great just warm for breakfast, teatime, supper, elevenses, midnight, three minutes past 2, and pretty much anything except maybe with sausages and fried onions. Although you never know…blackberries are much more flexible than people think after all!