The Habits of Blackberries

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Agriculture is never quite the same from year to year. Between the drought and the late frost, last year was spare. This summer, even though we are always on the edge of another drought, has been good. In the last week or so we have begun getting tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash in sufficient quantities to be useful in a restaurant. I've switched from picking honeysuckle flowers to picking blackberries. I've actually been doing this since I was little. My great grandmother would make a pie if I brought her four cups of them. Then, just like now, I would pick along the railroad track. Blackberries like the edge of a clearing. This week they started ripening in earnest. I get the kitchen up and running, fill my berry pitcher up with ice and beer and walk over to where the railroad track meets the cement plant. Seven o'clock is the best time. The heat is starting to break and the sun is less direct, but there is at least an hour of good light left. On an evening last week I looked west down the tracks where the sun was just setting. It was huge and red and looked like a poster for Serengeti National Park. There were mosquitoes and it was still hot. I stopped a minute to take it all in. I think that that was the best beer I've had in years.

Blackberries tend to grow in clusters of six to eight. About a week before the whole bunch begins to ripen, one berry at the end of each bunch suddenly plumps up and is ready. It's as if they send out a scout or something to check out the territory. There are patches of berries all over the neighborhood and they are all in different stages of ripening. Those that can get sun from both sides sometime during the day are first. Then there is a place with fairly dark shade. They are much slower, but because their spot stays damper, the fruit is much larger. There is one spot where the vines poke up through what appears to be an old driveway. They get great sun but the hot concrete beneath them prevents them from getting very large and juicy. They also come in last.

A few observations. Blackberries take on a certain luster when they are just right. It's hard to describe, but try to imagine something black being translucent. Right after they pass this point, the luster dulls but they will still be good for a day or so. They will come away in your hand without much effort. After a lot of rain, they can absorb an excess of moisture watering down their flavor. If a whole cluster is ripe, put down your pitcher or bowl and hold your open palm underneath it before you start to pick, In clusters, the berries on the bottom ripen first and the motion of picking can cause them to fall of their stems and be lost. When you think you have picked everything in one spot, move a few steps to the left or right, but keep your eyes on the same place. Invariably many more ripe berries will reveal themselves. Always wear long pants and long sleeves, or you will be scratched to ribbons by the thorns. Thornless varieties have been developed for cultivation but it seems to me that the fewer the thorns, the more sour the berries. June bugs love blackberries. And they are dark and shiny, too. Sometimes when you reach for a berry, you get a June bug instead. It is like one of those joke shop electric handshake trick rings.

Presently, blackberries have replaced strawberries in Donna Florio's buttermilk sherbet recipe. It is really fantastic. I have several other favorite blackberry recipes, but this week I'm off to Louisville for a Southern Foodways Alliance conference on whiskey, of all things. When I get back, look for some doubling up of blackberry desserts-perhaps rum babas or Madeira sabayon sharing the menu with the sherbet.

posted by Bill Smith at 8:39 PM


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