Blackberry & bourbon Eton mess – and Foraging 101

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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!

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BLACKBERRY & BOURBON ETON MESS (serves 4)

For printable recipe, click here.

Ingredients:

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

Method:

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.

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider sharing it using the social media buttons below the post. I'd also love to hear what you thought about this post so please do leave a comment below. Hope to see you again soon!

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  1. says

    Can’t help you with the berry’s name, but it brings back many childhood memories, this berry picking!!!!! Sorry about your 4-day weeks, it looks like you are making the most of it though!!!

  2. says

    I am also in the fear of foraging thing – I think that is the problem with growing up in SA (or in my case Australia) we have so many weird and wonderful native things that are potentially dangerous.

  3. says

    i’m giving you a huge hug – for simply looking on the positive side of life. i really love eton mess and realized i’ve not made it myself at all this year. shame with all the berries i’ve had! i like this!

  4. Claudine says

    How beautiful! I will make this upon my return from hols: on my way this eve to your beautiful country and to Namibia. Just one more foraging item: elderflower. I have been making really good cordial that can keep all winter long. Excellent on strawberries, ice cream, with gooseberries, to poach rhubarb, etc. Cant wait to read you again in september – enjoy your ‘free days’.

  5. says

    Jeanne, I’m wondering if those berries are sloes. Here is a site with pics to compare http://www.sloe.biz/sloes/index.htm. The only thing I know to do with sloes is make slow gin, but I think the site I’ve linked to here has a recipe for sloe jam too.
    I’m very envious of your blackberries. We always used to pick them and use them with apple and other berries to make summer pudding. My father always got in a good crop every year after they retired to fill the freezer.
    We finally identified a fine crop of mushrooms on our lawn as edible field mushrooms, only after most of them had finished. We were too nervous to try until a friend of long experience checked them out for us. They were delicious. In England I’d have picked and eaten them without a second thought, but here everyone seems way too cautious. Now we know though and won’t let them go to waste again next year.

  6. Stacey says

    The other fruit could be damsons (have a look here (sorry for the look address!!) http://www.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/content/knowhow/glossary/damson/image.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/content/knowhow/glossary/damson/&h=310&w=440&sz=45&tbnid=IegBlktqXg00GM:&tbnh=89&tbnw=127&prev=/images%3Fq%3Ddamson&hl=en&usg=___bVVEnVkYhDTK7NaCBb44RNY97U=&ei=qsmDSqPTHaDMjAfg2pCVCA&sa=X&oi=image_result&resnum=14&ct=image)
    I love this time of year and always gather as many blackberries as possible for jams, jellies, chutneys and for freezing for use in pies and crumbles over the winter.

  7. says

    Thanks for all your comments on my blog whilst I’ve been away & recently :) This Eton Mess looks absolutely delicious – reading your blog always inspires me to get into my own kitchen & be a little more creative !

  8. says

    It’s so crazy that you can go out (practically to your backyard) and pick those gorgeous berries to your heart’s content, and back here in SA they are hideously expensive! I can’t remember the last time I tasted blackberries…

  9. says

    What a fun treat… to be able to forage for berries so close to home! I wish I had such a luxury. When I was younger, my father lived in Northern California where we could pick wild huckleberries in the woods. Your dessert looks fabulous!

  10. Maria says

    The fruits are *definitely* sloes. Pick them by the bucket load and make sloe gin! I make sloe gin each year, then when I remove the sloes from the gin I put them into a bottle of port for a month or so. You end up with port which has a lovely sloe gin element to it, and you end up with a pile of sloes which have been steeped in gin and port for a year. I then slice the flesh off the sloes (a slow business this) and use them to make wonderful sloe gin truffles…

  11. says

    Is it possible that those blueberry like fruits are bilberries? (They do sound like sloe plums but I didn’t know sloes were so small)
    Eton mess sounds wonderful but… but… Pie. You need to make pie….

  12. browniegirl says

    Oooh, this looks like sublime mess to me….hope you find out what those berries are. I personally hope they are sloes…..bring on the gin hehe…hugs xxx

  13. says

    Sorry to hear about the difficulties Jeanne :( Hopefully we can weather this!
    That shouldn’t be called a mess– it should be a beauty :) Totally jealous of your berry bounty!

  14. says

    what gorgeous blackberries. totally loving this eton mess already. and thanks for the foraging tips. i remember climbing a cherry tree for some of those glistening red cherries. nearly fell and broke my neck. lol. so tall friend is definitely needed.
    those berries look kinda suspicious. a bit like a japanese black grape and a blueberry. scary! x

  15. Helen, Balham says

    I’ve just stumbled on your blog and the Eton Mess looks great – bourbon will be my addition next time I make it!
    The berries in your picture look like damsons to me. My mum grows them in her garden. They definitely need sweetening but make very tasty jam and ice cream!

  16. Ash says

    Hey Jeanne, I’ve been making blackberry jam cos I have two willing little helpers who do nothing but pick blackberries for me! I haven’t even had to get my hands dirty :) I couldn’t find a straightforward blackberry jam recipe, most had apple for the pectin, but I didn’t want to dilute that lovely blackberry flavour so I improvised with equal quantities blackberries to sugar, and the juice of half a lemon.
    I used 225g blackberries and got one jar, which is perfect as I don’t want it hanging about. It came to the setting point in about 15 minutes, but looked runny even at the setting point. In the jar, once cooled, it is perfect! I’ll make your eton mess with the next lot. Re the other berries, I have seen them too and was also confused. I think they must be sloes though, as damsons look a bit bigger, more like a plum? Maybe someone can say how big the damsons get to, because the berries I’ve seen are definitely blueberry sized.

  17. says

    Sorry to hear the recession is taking a bite out of your hours, but hopefully just temporarily and that the time spent on yourself will be worth it. Heard the whole thing is supposed to slowly start turning again, but I suppose emphasis on slow. I so know what you mean about learning fear from your mother- everything was poisonous and dangerous. Wonder how much of that fear factor was motivated by the old government’s use of fear as means of keeping us all in line and then that overall fear filtering down into everyday things. Oh, and is Eton Mess the food of the second? Everywhere I turn I see it, we even made some yesterday. Yours look and sound deliciously different though. Nice!

  18. says

    They look like Italian Plums. Sorry about the reduced work week , but it could be worse with no job. But you know that. At least you are using the time to do things you enjoy. More time for writing!

  19. says

    Pleasing to see you’ve also been picking blackberries. Was with my cousin on Hampstead Heath recently when a couple came along and said, ‘Nee man, hulle’s net soos braambesies.’ (No man, they’re just like brambles). As kids in the KZN Midlands my sister and I were often sent down to the river to pick brambles which my mother would turn in to jam, sometimes using cooking apples (from the garden) to bulk it up.
    I’ve also wondered about those bluey things. An English friend who grew up in rural Wilshire and knows these things seems to think they’re damsons.

  20. Valerie Seal says

    Can anyone tell me how to use huckleberries. I have grown 2 bushes which are covered in fruit, however they taste horrible raw. Can I mix them with apple in a pie?
    Val