Farm Ireland

Saturday 29 October 2016

It's lean pickings all round in the quest for perfect berries

Ann Fitzgerald

Published 16/09/2015 | 02:30

Blackberries - there are often only a few prime specimens
Blackberries - there are often only a few prime specimens

What is it about blackberries that, on first glimpse of a new patch, you fully believe that it is finally going to yield the motherload? That every berry is going to be purple and plump, dripping with juice and delicious.

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Yet, when you actually get stuck into picking them, you find there are really only a few prime specimens and far more unripe, small or damaged ones.

Is it a berry version of faraway hills are green or that the ripe ones grab the attention? As Seamus Heaney wrote in his poem Blackberry Picking

'We trekked and picked until the cans were full,

Until the tinkling bottom had been covered

With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned

Like a plate of eyes.'

The Nobel Laureate wrote of picking berries in "late August" but the growing season was around a fortnight late starting this year and is now already fading fast.

This is causing problems for tillage farmers who, on top of low prices, are struggling to harvest late ripening crops, while grass growth has almost come to a halt.

But this is not good news either for our wildlife, as a lot of their potential winter food won't get to ripen at all and much of what does will doubtlessly soon be lost during hedge-cutting.

While a lot of hedges are being cut at this time of year, sometimes out of necessity but often out of habit or convenience, it would be better if they were left until later in the cutting season. They could also be managed so that some stretches are left intact every winter leaving enough blackberries, elderberries, and haws for the animals that need them to survive.

The other native fruit that I am most familiar with since childhood is the apple. We hadn't an orchard ourselves but both my grandmothers did. At this time of year, we would spend our Sunday afternoons gathering windfalls and climbing trees in search of the better ones for storage.

This year, I have seen one small old tree in a sheltered spot which has a display of shiny red apples that would spoil Snow White's wicked stepmother for choice but, in general, the anecdotal evidence is that the domestic fruit harvest is patchy.

We ourselves haven't as much as one pear and only a poor showing of both cooking and eating apples.

With my new-found notion to "think fit, not fat" and all my talk about trying to establish good eating habits from a young age, I have taken to making fruit smoothies every morning. I don't have a juicer but they seem to work fine just using a hand blender, which can be cleaned in seconds.

I know it would be better if we ate the fruits whole but this is a non-runner on busy school mornings.

At the moment, I am using our own apples and blackberries (sometimes fresh, sometimes frozen), purchased peaches, some orange juice and a banana which sweetens and thickens. I am also managing to slip in half a home-grown beetroot without it being noticed.

Of course, this time of year is not just about eating lots of fresh native fruit. Indeed, one of the things that makes going back to school bearable for the girls is occasionally coming home to the delicious aromas of a fruity bake.

There are any number of simple fast recipes, from the traditional crisp, crumble, cobbler and Brown Betty to others that are new to me - buckle, slump/grunt, pandowdy and sonker. They are all based on using lots of seasonal fruit and their appeal is based more on taste than appearance.

Oh, for any eagle-eyed readers who think it's a bit rich of me to be urging farmers to delay cutting hedges to leave berries for the birds whilst picking them myself, I am still leaving enough to go around, especially on the higher branches beyond my reach.

Indo Farming