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A Bit of Blackberrying (+ Pectin-Free Blackberry Jam & a Blackberry Pie)

9 September 2013

Blackberry-Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
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.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

~ Seamus Heaney

Fall is more than the end of summer and crisp red-and-yellow leaves to me — it is also canning season. For the past 6 or so years, depending on what was available to me, I’ve made and preserved applesauce, tomato sauce and blackberry jam. Two years ago I made 100 small jars of blackberry and blackberry-huckleberry jam to give away at my wedding plus enough half-pint jars that even after I’d layered heaping spoonfuls into my wedding cake we had enough to carry us through for months (I went a little nuts but it was a surprisingly soothing and satisfying enterprise). Last year was a late season for blackberries and we were able to pick enough in early October that we spread lightly-sweetened jam across toast and the occasional lemon cake well into spring.

When I look back at those posts it’s difficult to believe a year has slipped by since I was nearing the end of training for my third fall marathon; that I was just a few weeks away from giving notice at my full-time job; that our move to Morocco was still a sort of gauzy specter on the horizon that nonetheless was drawing ever nearer; that the notion of a wee Fennel hadn’t even entered my mind. All I was focused on was logging my miles in the Indian Summer sun, sneaking in trips to the Pelican Inn every so often, planning freelance articles, and collecting berries for preserves. Harder still to imagine that it’s been nearly two years since we were married on a blazingly blue day by the Pacific Ocean. Life moves so quickly. Perhaps this is a reason I love a canning project: it helps me slow down, to simmer and stir and fold fruit (and time) into a jar. The memory of summer’s sweetness kept in tactile form long after the time change.

This year I was going to take a pass on the canning thing given that this whole growing another human being thing tends to make me a wee bit tired-er than usual, but the idea of jam-making niggled away at me and wouldn’t leave me alone. Wouldn’t I regret if if I didn’t try? Regardless of the late afternoon slump I surely could power through, couldn’t I? And I do so love homemade blackberry jam. I thought of how happy we’d be to have those preserves in the rainy months of a Casablanca winter and screwed up my energy.

I planned to wake up early last Monday morning and go for a run/walk along the bike trail in Sebastopol; afterward, I’d pick blackberries for jam. Blackberry-picking has become my early fall tradition after all, and why should this year be any different? I set my alarm. I mentally prepared. I thought about getting coffee after. I made peanut butter on toast to bring along with me. So when I couldn’t get the car to start (probably my fault), I felt a bit of a failure: I had to make jam. I had to get those blackberries! I had planned it, after all, and thus I must accomplish my task. When I didn’t, I felt thoroughly defeated — and this was perhaps my true failing. At 8(+) months pregnant or no, I don’t always know how to take a break.

In truth, I rarely know how to take a break. I am the person who hikes up Yosemite Falls 2 months into it, and is frustrated with herself when she doesn’t have quite the same stamina she once did (um … duh?). I am the person who is already thinking about another marathon in another year or so, despite the rigors of training (not to mention having a small person about) and living in a foreign country. My library queue grows longer by the day. My projects list stretches out endlessly. And etc. (much more etc.). I do not necessarily recommend my mindset but this seems to be the way it goes.

So … no blackberry jam for 2013. That the car didn’t start was a sign, surely. Right? Well, because this is me, I took myself down there the next (later) morning to try again. I’ll just make a small batch, I told myself. And maybe a pie.

As it happened, there weren’t too many decent-looking berries on the bushes so my dilemma over whether to just go for it (or not) was neatly sidestepped. Perhaps it was the aftermath of a holiday weekend or perhaps the season arrived early in Northern California this year and I missed it. No matter. The day was warm and clear with a light wind, a glorious day to be outside, and I was able to pick just enough berries to make a tiny (tiny!) batch of refrigerator jam as well as a pie. After all my mental gnashing of teeth this was the perfect outcome: just enough, but not too much. Just right.

Plus I learned something as well: I can skip the pectin in any future blackberry jam endeavors and use lemon juice instead. That lesson alone was worth the small price of the effort to make it.

So there are two recipes today to make up for a recent lack: a gooey, juicy blackberry pie with a whole wheat crust and a quick pectin-free blackberry jam recipe that will be my new blackberry jam go-to in the future. I don’t necessarily dislike pectin, but I like to keep things are simple and as fresh as possible and in fact most of my jam recipes leave it out. I started using it when I made my wedding jam — being loathe to ruin that very important batch if I didn’t include pectin — and kept it up last year because, well, it had worked previously and I supposed I should. I am so glad to discover I needn’t include it any longer; lemon juice acts as a wonderful natural binder here, and doing a quick boil and then a simmer helps bring it all together. Magic really, which when you think about it is sort of the whole idea behind jam … from simplicity can come so much.

Sweet California has been so very good to us of late — delicious Indian Summer for days, blue skies for miles, cool ocean breezes and enough hot days to counter it all. This is my stolen season, my unexpected few months back in my beloved place, and I am soaking it up greedily, taking as much as it gives me.

Summer’s blood, indeed.

  • helen 9 September 2013 at 9:00 pm

    Lovely post…..a nice and loyal tribute to the recently departed Seamus Heaney….. you always provide a spot on description of northern California. Love it!

  • Marlene Dotterer 9 September 2013 at 8:03 am

    I LOVE pie. There a few kinds I can do without, such as mincemeat, but in general, PIE is the most amazing stuff. Yours looks awesome. I hope wee fennel enjoys it too. Such good, real food!