All stained and scarred from an afternoon picking backberries from the hedgerows hereabouts. Last year’s crop were transformed into vodka and vinegar, still in the pantry. This year I think I’ll make some jelly to join them. I’m less interested in the eating and drinking than the collecting – a ritual of the season ever since we walked upright. Jane Grigson’s wonderful Fruit Book tells us ‘when a neolithic burial was excavated at the beginning of this century on the Essex coast, there was about a pint of seeds found in the area of the stomach – with blackberry seeds predominating.’
The poems I always turn to are Sylvia Plath’s moody Blackberrying –
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.
The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Those two poems cast a long shadow – it’s never seemed necessary to say anything more. But I did write a Hedgerow Jelly poem a few years ago, which some foraging friends of mine used as a recipe to make some of their own and then gave me a jar as a gift. A perfect exchange.
The morning seemed ordinary
until she lifted the sieve of fruit – each berry
plucked from the hedgerows, ‘goodly
amounts’ of hawthorn and rosehip, according to the recipe
for pectin to set the jelly,
tumbled with apples from the city –
and dripping through the muslin was ruby,
pure and concentrated autumn, fiery,
waiting for sugar and another boiling, bubbly
and foaming, till she wanted to dive into the beautifully
maroon confection bursting into life in the shiny
saucepan, her whole kitchen rich and smelly
with harvest bounty
she skimmed and poured into jars, steamy
with anticipation, fumes rising billowy
and sweet, like the spills, sticky,
she licked from her fingers before holding her trophy –
three glinting garnet jars, lovely –
up to the light, too rosy
to seal in with a label saying its name so plainly