The recession – bah, who needs it??
Everyone is exhausted by its steady erosion of our opportunities, salaries (unless you happen to be a banker, of course…), optimism and disposable income. In fact, the only positive for me so far has been the fact that I am on an enforced four-day week for the next three months. On the downside, only four days' work also means only four days pay, which is not ideal for somebody with a 2-month old mortgage. But the getting up on Friday morning just as Nick is heading for the office and realising that the whole day stretches out in front of you to do with what you like – blogging, gym, reading, sleeping, gardening – is pure bliss. It meant that last Friday after gym, I could come home, collect a bag and a camera and go blackberry picking less than 100 metres from my front door – and I have to say it was a lot more fun than the daily commute!
As I've said before, foraging does not come naturally to me. Some lucky (mostly northern hemisphere) foodbloggers grew up practically learning foraging at their mother's knee. Me? I learned fear at my mother's knee! Both my brother and I were often regaled with stories of unfortunate people who went mushroom picking and were found dead from some fungal neurotoxin the next day; or people who made kebab skewers out of oleander branches and nearly died. It was enough to put you off foraging for life. The only practical foraging information I remember getting was from my parents' old friend Bob who once told my brother and me: "berry red – go ahead; berry white – take fright". And that was the extent of my childhood foraging knowledge!!
Since moving to the UK, foraging has been a learning curve, so I thought I'd share with you some of the things I've learnt about foraging:
1. Don't pick or eat unidentified berries, even if they do look almost like something familiar. You never know which ones might be poisonous. Take these guys below for example. Help! Can anybody tell me what they are? They were growing side by side with the blackberry bushes, on plants of about the same height, and the fruit were similar in colour and size to blueberries - but the shape was different. I cut one open for a nibble – they have a relatively large single pip in the centre and extremely tart greenish flesh. If they're edible, I'll be going to collect some this Friday! I await your guidance, experienced foragers…
2. Remember to take a sturdy container with you. The last thing you want is a flimsy plastic packet that splits when it gets too heavy, spilling you precious cargo!
3. Wear long sleeves (or pruning gloves, if you have). Blackberries are particularly well-endowed with thorns and will scratch you to bits if you're not careful.
4. Take a tall friend with you (or a small stepladder!). The best and juiciest fruit always higher up and probably slightly beyond your reach.
5. When reaching for a particularly plump berry and arriving to find that a wasp has already staked his claim, retreat graciously. The berry is not worth it!
6. You may also want to avoid the lower fruit (knee-level) which could have been sprayed by a passing male dog or some other equally unsavoury fate…!
7. Try to pick the fruit that come off the stems easily in your hand – they will be the ripest and the sweetest. You can always return a few days later for the rest, giving them a chance to ripen.
8. Wear sturdy shoes – you invariably end up in the muddy undergrowth in search of just one more perfect berry…
9. Try to put more berries in your bag than in your mouth!
10. Make sure you come home and immediately make something fabulous with your FREE, recession-busting bounty
Like, say, this blueberry & bourbon Eton mess that I made for dessert when our friends Meredith and Dan were visiting from Costa Rica. Traditional Eton mess is made with strawberries, but I saw no reason why I could not make it with blackberries. The colour of the blackberry syrup is absolutely astonishing and makes traditional Eton mess look quite anaemic – and the tart berries make a great foil for the sweet cream and meringue. The Bourbon was added on a whim, but I have to say it works very well with the taste of blackberries and is going to be a permanent fixture every time I make this!
BLACKBERRY & BOURBON ETON MESS (serves 4)
roughly 2 cups of fresh blackberries, washed
300ml double cream
1 tsp plus 1 heaped Tbsp caster sugar, divided
about a tot (25ml) of bourbon, divided
6-8 small meringues, crumbled
4 whole meringues
mint leaves to garnish
Choose roughly a handful of the most squashed or damaged berries and place them in a small saucepan with just enough water to cover the base, 1 tsp of the sugar and half a tot of bourbon. Simmer until the berries start to break up and the liquid is slightly reduced, then remove from the heat and roughly crush with a fork. Allow to cool.
Whip the cream, gradually adding the sugar and remaining half-tot of bourbon, until soft peaks form.
Fold the blackberry syrup, crushed meringues and whole blackberries into the cream, reserving a few of the blackberries for serving. Try not to mix the syrup in completely – it's a marbled effect we're after!
Divide the creamy mixture between four serving bowls and garnish each with a few whole berries, a whole meringue and a mint sprig before serving.
Don't forget to check out my latest column on Food24, all about eating on Venus and Mars.