By Leda Meredith
Blackberries were one of the first wild fruits I ever picked when I was a kid. There was an abandoned lot a few blocks away from where we lived. It had become completely overgrown with wild plants and the remnants of a former garden. Among the plants that flourished there was a big patch of blackberries.
I don’t remember learning to identify blackberries, which are members of the Rubus genus. They were just one of the things I did as a kid, like blowing on dandelion’s fluffy seed heads.
Someone must have taught me to recognize the 3 or 5-parted, toothed leaves, lighter green on their undersides than on top. Surely the arching, prickly canes scratched me, and that attribute became part of how I recognized the plant (and still is, sigh. I know you’re supposed to wear long sleeves, etc., when you collect Rubus species, but somehow I never do).
Perhaps I unconsciously noticed that the flowers had five petals and numerous yellow-tipped things in the center (the stamens). For sure I knew how to spot the fruit that looked like lots of little bubbles pasted together (technically an aggregate fruit, for my fellow botany geeks).
A few years ago I was leading a group of kids and their parents and chaperones in upstate New York. The hotel restaurant was a pancake house. Just behind the restaurant was a big patch of peak-season blackberries. I thought it would be perfect to offer the kids and their grown ups some berries to go with their pancakes, so I collected a generous container full.
Only one of the adults would taste the berries or let her kids anywhere near them, and that was because she remembered picking blackberries as a child. The others refused. Apparently, something picked and packaged by strangers and left on a store shelf is more trustworthy than perfectly ripe fruit just picked by an expert forager. Sad.
Blackberries can be expensive to buy. Their juicy fruit crushes easily, doesn’t have a long shelf life, and doesn’t ripen all at once, so the harvest mostly has to be done by hand over many weeks. Those traits make blackberry a fussy commercial crop, but they are part of what makes this fruit a forager’s delight.
The blackberry season in Brooklyn starts in August and continues though most of September. Look for blackberries at the edges of meadows and paths in our parks.
Blackberry Cordial (recipe works gorgeously with raspberries, too)
Makes approximately 1 quart
For this recipe it’s best to use organically grown, or foraged fruit because the recipe depends on wild yeasts for fermentation. Commercially grown fruit has often been sprayed with chemicals and then washed so thoroughly that no wild yeasts remain. Should you need to use commercial fruit, keep an eye on the cordial. If no signs of fermentation are noticeable after two days (it should get quite frothy on top), add just a small pinch of wine or baking yeast to kick-start the mixture.
- 2 quarts fresh or frozen blackberries
- 2 cups boiling water
- 2 cups sugar
1. Thaw the berries if using frozen ones. In a non-metal container or crock, crush the berries well with a potato masher or the bottom of a wine bottle. Add the boiling water. This kills off any harmful bacteria but some of the hardier wine-making yeasts will survive. Cover with cheesecloth or a dishtowel. Leave in a warm place for 24 hours, stirring occasionally.
2. Push the berries and the liquid through a fine sieve, jelly bag or a colander lined with cheesecloth to remove the seeds. Save the juice and discard the pulp.
3. Add the sugar and stir well. Stir again every 15 minutes for 1 hour (5 times total).
4. Strain mixture again through several layers of dampened cheesecloth or a jelly bag.
5. Bottle. Note: at this point some cordial recipes say to cork the bottles tightly. I tried that once. The cordial blew up and shot the corks a good six feet and I had berry cordial on my ceiling.
Instead, I recommend sealing the jars with fermentation locks (available from winemaking suppliers online) or balloons that have been pricked once with a pin. The pinprick allows some of the gasses produced by fermentation to escape so that the balloons don’t explode. The balloons will inflate during active fermentation. When they deflate, it is safe to cork your cordial.
6. When fermentation ceases in approximately 2 months, remove the fermentation lock or balloon and cap or cork tightly. Store bottles on their sides in a cool, dark place for at least another 2 months before drinking.
7. The cordial may be slightly fizzy when you first open it. Decant before drinking. After decanting, you can store the cordial in clear glass bottles that show off the beautiful color.
Leda Meredith is the author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. She is the Gardening Program Coordinator for Adult Education at the New York Botanical Garden and an instructor specializing in edible and medicinal plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Info on her many upcoming classes and events can be found on her blog at www.ledameredith.com.