It’s blackberry season
Summer is winding down — and it’s time for blackberries!
These dark, luscious berries have been with us for millennia and were eaten in prehistoric times by hunter-gatherers on both sides of the Atlantic. There are many varieties — some native to the Old World, others to the New — but all grow in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere.
Author Brandi L. Bates describes a summer afternoon: “Picking blackberries, beneath late afternoon sun; a sunset reminiscent of watermelon sangria, as the scent of honeysuckle accosts me and the ducks waddle into the lake. Thanking Mama Nature for her abundance.”
Poet Laureate Mary Oliver describes it this way: “When the blackberries hang swollen in the woods, in the brambles nobody owns, I spend all day among the high branches, reaching my ripped arms, thinking of nothing, cramming the black honey of summer into my mouth; all day my body accepts what it is. In the dark creeks that run by there is this thick paw of my life darting among the black bells, the leaves; there is this happy tongue.”
Vicki Archer describes a French summer: “Summertime in the French countryside is the smell of ripening fig trees and the taste of wild blackberries.”
William Shakespeare wrote of the dark fruits’ abundance in England: “If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion.”
In the Old Testament, Jonathan, son of David, tells a parable about the trees choosing a king while rebuking the men of Shechem. After the olive, fig-tree and grapevine refused the job, the thorny bramble agreed (Judges 9).
On our side of the Atlantic, an Iroquois legend tells how a young boy chased away the frost spirit by throwing hot blackberry sauce in his face.
The ancient Greeks believed that eating the fruit would protect against many diseases, and used them as medicine for throat ailments and gout. American Indians used the berries to cure stomach ailments, and Europeans used them as a remedy for diarrhea. Blackberry wine and brandy were used to cure stomach ills until the 1800s.
Today, we know that blackberries are high in many polyphenols and antioxidants, naturally occurring substances that help to regulate metabolism, fight cancer, boost “good” cholesterol and promote overall good health. One of these, the anti-carcinogen ellagic acid, is extracted from berries and is sold as a food supplement.
Just 1 cup of blackberries has half the RDA of vitamin C, as well as 10% of the folate and 22% of the fiber. They are also a good source of potassium, calcium, iron, malic and citric acids. Blackberries contain more heart-protecting fiber than any other summer fruit.
It was not until the 20th century that some blackberry varieties were cultivated. Prior to that, they were gathered from the wild. Because of their prickliness, the wild berries are often referred to as brambles or briars.
The canes, or stems, come up from a perennial root system. Blackberries appear on the stems in the second year. Botanically, the fruit is not a true berry, but rather a collection of many drupelets that ripen to a dark purple or black fruit.
Today, some thornless blackberry cultivars, such as Navaho, Hull, Marionberry and Chester, are gaining in popularity. Although the berries are larger than their wild cousins, there is a compromise in the complexity of the flavor. There are also numerous raspberry-blackberry hybrids; the best known is probably the Oregon boysenberry, a soft, reddish-purple berry with a subtle wine flavor, discovered in 1920 in the California fields of Rudolf Bysen. Others include the Loganberry and the Tayberry.
When ripe, blackberries turn from a hard, shiny red to a rich, dull, purple-black. Be sure to pick only plump, soft, dark berries (with no red drupelets) that almost fall off the branches; they don’t ripen after being harvested. If they don’t release easily from the vine, leave them for later.
They’re delicate and begin to deteriorate quickly, so eat within a day or two of harvest. Because they’re so fragile, growers in warm climates may pick berries at night, when cooler temperatures help keep the berries fresh.
They’re best eaten right off the branch or topped with whipped cream to capture their fresh, sprightly flavor. When you’ve had your fill of plain blackberries, try them in ice cream, yogurt, smoothie or fruit salad. The soft fruit is also great in desserts (like blackberry cobbler or boysenberry pie), jams and jellies, and wine or flavored vinegar.
Blackberry Peach Melba
The original Peach Melba was created in 1892 or 1893 by Auguste Escoffier at London’s Savoy Hotel. It combines peaches, berries, and ice cream.
2 cups fresh-picked blackberries
1 Tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
1 Tablespoon raspberry liqueur
2 or 3 scoops ice cream or frozen yogurt (French vanilla or peach)
2 Tablespoons slivered almonds
whipped cream (optional)
Rinse peaches. Quarter, discard pits, and place into 2 serving bowls. Arrange a half-cup of blackberries in each dish.
Make sauce by combining remaining 1 cup berries, honey, zest and liqueur in a saucepan. Heat on low, mashing with fork until combined, warm, and spongy. Place a scoop of ice cream on top of the fruit in each dish. Pour warm sauce over, sprinkle with almonds, and garnish with whipped cream if desired. Serves 2 or 3.
Summertime Fruit Salad
1 cup diced melon (muskmelon or cantaloupe)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup blackberries
1 cup blueberries
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1 Tablespoon maple syrup
Place melon in bowl and sprinkle lightly with cinnamon. Add berries and almonds, and stir to combine. With a fork or whisk, blend yogurt and maple syrup. Fold into fruit. Serves 2.
Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook at Words Are My World.