A few months ago, when I was planting out seedlings in The Secret Garden, we met our neighbours for the first time. Or rather they met us. Zippy and Roo were attempting to scale the crumbling wall between our two gardens, in pursuit of their ballsy cat, Henry, who never tires of teasing the children from the treetops.
Given that the house next door is owned by the Church, it came as no surprise that the residents are the Dean of Bristol Cathedral and his family. This first meeting was warm if a little brief, which, on reflection, may have had something to do with my asking the Dean about his aspirations for popedom. (The branches of Christianity have never been my strong point).
Over these last weeks of summer, the shared wall has rewarded us with the blackest, plumpest blackberries. The harvesting was easy at first, as the thorny branches bowed willingly over the barricade. But once the fruits on our side were plucked, the temptation to stretch a little further was all too much and I found myself leaning, in quite a leany way, over the wall. And maybe a little bit into the Dean’s garden.
The Husband, catching me in the act with our children carrying out a diminutive Bonnie and Clyde sidekick operation, inquired if I’d asked the neighbours first before taking their berries. My response – that I hadn’t and didn’t feel the need to, because the blackberry bush itself is tucked behind towering rosemary bushes and soaring pine trees in a bed far out of reach of the Dean and his family – was met with a scornful gaze. My short critique that scrumping is an integral part of West Country life was effectively now grounds for divorce.
Well, it served me right when, last night, I – the muddy-faced scrumping Jew from next door – crucified myself on the Dean’s blackberry bush. The Husband found me in a semi-yogic posture snared to the brambles, the thorns pricking at my skin and tearing at my clothes. He didn’t even need to say it; I told me so myself.
Consequently you can imagine our faces this morning when Bob, The Mother-in-Law’s lady painter-decorator-in-residence, turned up at the front door with a box-full of foraged blackberries, sweeter than those that I’d sacrificed myself on a bush for. Except there were so many of them that I couldn’t face any more ‘purple porridge’ or puddings, so I made a huge bottle of blackberry vinegar – a sweet-sour, dark-as-night, taste-of-heavenly-hedgerows syrup.
During the winter months, it reminds desserts, salads and pancakes of late summer days. Added to a mug of hot water (diluted 1:5), it’s an effective preventative and cure for those impending winter colds. But what I like most of all is what those clever folk in the North of England do: drizzled over Yorkshire pudding, it turns a typically savoury dish into a delightful dessert. And you’ll be happy to know it’s a cinch to make.
I use less sugar in my recipe (traditionally it’s 1:1 sugar to fruit) in my usual bid for the family to eat less sugar. The result is a slightly more tangy condiment but it’s still very much sweet enough, especially drizzled over yoghurt, rice pud, or some roasted beetroot.
450g (1lb) blackberries, washed
600ml (1 pint) white wine vinegar (other recipes use malt or cider, so you could use whichever is to hand, I suppose)
300g (1lb) unrefined sugar
Place the blackberries in a bowl and cover with vinegar. Put a plate on top of the mixture and a heavyish object on top of the plate (I use a teapot), and push down lightly.
Leave for 3-5 days, depending on how fruity you’d like your vinegar (I leave mine for 5 days.) Stir every day or so.
Uncover and give the mixture a stir. Then, pressing down with the back of a ladle or spoon, carefully mash the berries to release their juices.
Next, sieve the mixture into a large saucepan, so you are left with the liquid. Add the sugar to the liquid, stir and heat until boiling.
Simmer for 15 minutes and then simply pour into sterilised bottles.
Keep for a few months and then crack open in the mid-winter.