Tuesday 17 October 2017

Start picking autumn's bounty

FROM a high hedge, crab apples and elderberries spill over a wall, hanging together like lovers in an enchanted swoon. This is a year of bountiful harvest after the heat and rain.

The umbels of dusky, shining berries contrast with the green apple boughs bending like bunches of grapes. Where, in early summer, the elder's white lace doilies opened to the morning sun, now the ripened fruit hangs heavily and pleads to be harvested. But few will have picked the flowers to make a refreshing summer drink, and only makers of country wines will now gather the ripened bunches. They will be left for birds, or to fall to mammal and insect life on the ground.

As the year falls, the elder will be left to die back, its soft-centred extremities being easily trimmed, and will take on the wretched appearance and smell that trigger unease at the legend that this was the hanging tree of Judas.

Elder has always been a plant of folkloric mystery, superstition and association with fairies and magic, but also swinging between poles of distaste and acceptability and usefulness -- mature cut-back wood is valued as a sturdy basis for hedging.

Blackberries have been in tandem with the elder, with many varieties or micro-species bearing a profusion of berries. Get picking now, as tradition has it that at the end of the month, at Michaelmas (September 29), the devil travels about urinating on the fruit! Of course, this is really an insect called a flash-fly that dribbles saliva on the fruit and sucks up the juice. Ugh! Such berries will become hard and bitter.

Blackberry picking was, at one time, a popular Sunday afternoon activity -- hopefully one making a comeback -- and there was a time, long ago, when it was a small home-industry. With other schoolboys, I was an enthusiastic picker because you could sell the fruits of your labours; two boys carried a ladder for the high bunches.

It was vital to deliver quickly the full containers to the local collecting store because the fruit softened. Seamus Heaney, as a boy, knew the pangs of disappointment caused by delay. He and pals hoarded their harvest in an old bath only to find all too soon "a rat-grey fungus glutting our cache." He was deeply disappointed. "It wasn't fair that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not."

There are many recipes for pudding delights to be made from the harvest of the hedgerows -- blackberries, elders, sloes and damsons and crab apples. It is also time to seek black and red currants and gooseberries in fruit shops. All can become jams, jellies and tarts in delightful mixtures. And a gooseberry sauce is delicious with fresh mackerel now giving themselves up at pier heads.

If recipes and baking are too time-consuming, steep some of your blackberries in red wine overnight. Very cool! Or, using a juice extractor and the ripest berries, make a junket, leave to stand undisturbed for a few hours in a warm room to set, and then enjoy with some cream and/or a drop or two of a favourite liqueur.

A delicious experience.

Sunday Independent

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