Jan 08, 2024

Berry good! 17 wonderful ways with blackberries

What’s not to love about a fruit that’s plentiful, free and so very versatile? Get picking!

I used to live across the road from a park overrun with brambles. They weren’t wild blackberries, but some kind of cultivar that had broken free, people said, from allotments during the second world war. That meant the berries were bigger and ripened considerably earlier than the wild ones. People started picking them in late July, and after a couple of years I started to blindly follow their example.

Collecting them was easy; the difficulty lay in figuring out what to do with them. Generally, after suffering an acute failure of imagination, I would produce eight to 10 jars of blackberry jam, most of them given away at Christmas to people who must have suspected I held some kind of grudge against them. No matter: as long as you get little kids to make your labels for you, people feel uncomfortable complaining.

The problem of how to deal with this annual glut of blackberries plagued me for more than a decade. My ultimate solution was to move away from the area, but nothing so drastic is normally required. With the picking season now in full swing, here are 17 splendid ways to conquer this year’s blackberry mountain.

First off, it’s worth pointing out that in many cases blackberries can just take the place of other berries – which may be out of season – offering a new slant to a familiar pudding. You can make a blackberry shortcake instead of a strawberry one, or blackberry muffins when you haven’t got any blueberries. Tom Hunt has a simplified autumn version of Eton mess with blackberries, cassis and thyme leaves. If you are making your own meringues, this mess will require about three hours’ notice, but you can whip it up in no time with shop-bought ones.

Blackberries have a natural affinity with apples: they come into season at roughly the same time, their flavours work well together and apples are often used in blackberry jam to provide the pectin blackberries lack. They are also paired in that most traditional of puddings, the blackberry and apple crumble. There are endless recipes out there, but Nigel Slater’s version, with marzipan added to the crumble, is hard to improve upon.

Apples and blackberries are the main ingredients in this Jane Grigson pie. You can also try coring (but not peeling) some large apples, filling the hollow with blackberries mashed up with sugar and baking them, basting throughout with a mixture of golden syrup and water. The result is a bit like time travel, since this Ambrose Heath recipe was first printed in the Guardian in 1953.

A Russian sharlotka cake normally contains apples, but Tamal Ray combines blackberries and pears for his take on it. (If you think you might prefer apples, he says, just replace the pears with an equal weight of them). It’s so simple it sounds as if it won’t work, but it does.

If you are looking for a high reward-to-effort ratio in your puddings, it’s always hard to beat a fool, and Jamie Oliver’s blackberry fool is a good example: it’s just simmered berries, sugar and vanilla, cooled and stirred into whipped cream. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s blackberry upside down cake is also easy, although it does require buttermilk. If you haven’t got any you can produce a serviceable substitute by adding a tablespoon of lemon juice to 250ml of regular milk and letting it curdle for 10 minutes.

Edd Kimber’s blackberry and star anise chocolate cake is a bit more involved: a rye flour chocolate cake filled with blackberry and star anise jam, whipped cream and topped with a chocolate ganache. These blackberry and sage crumble bars from Benjamina Ebuehi have the advantage of being the kind of crumble one might plausibly eat for breakfast.

People sometimes complain about the number of tiny pips you get with blackberries – they make for a very seedy jam – so here are two recipes that take the time to sieve them out for smoother results: a blackberry mousse and a blackberry and lime sorbet. The latter requires no cooking at all, just sieving and freezing. And an ice-cream maker.

Although they are primarily used in puddings, blackberries are tart enough to have many savoury applications. These include, but are by no means limited to, Tomasina Miers’ roast beet, blackberry and barley salad and Nigel Slater’s pork crackling with blackberry and apple. His isn’t so much a savoury dish as a plate of intense but pleasing contrasts. Any leftover stewed fruit, Slater says, would work just as well in a trifle.

Finally, blackberries can be deployed in all manner of cocktails and mocktails. Guardian reader Piers Puntan supplied this recipe for blackberry vodka, which asks little of you beyond patience – the end result is three to six months away.

If you’re in a hurry for a drink, try transforming your glut of blackberries into a shrub. Shrub is a weird and slightly unappetising word, but it’s probably preferable to “fermented drinking vinegar”, which is what it describes. You can easily make this trendy cocktail ingredient yourself from equal parts fruit, sugar and vinegar. Some recipes tell you to simmer the vinegar and sugar together first, but Tom Hunt’s doesn’t. Just combine everything in a big jar, shake it up and leave it for a few days. Then strain the result through a muslin into a clean bottle. Your shrub should keep for up to four months in the fridge, but it probably won’t last you that long.