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


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.

Blackberry Pie with a Whole Wheat Crust

I am not a big pie person — it has to be pretty perfect for me to like it, and frankly I just really prefer cake — but I love the idea of it and I do love to make it, especially with my fail-safe oil crust (butter is lovely too, but sometimes you just want things to be a bit lighter). And blackberry pie is just special. Also try swapping out half the berries for apples for a classic pairing.

Makes 1 9-inch pie

For the crust
2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch salt
1/3 cup vegetable or olive oil, or a margarine such as Earth Balance
5-7 tablespoons ice water

For the filling
6 cups (about 1½ lbs.) blackberries
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup flour or cornstarch
2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

In a large bowl, whisk together the pastry flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Drizzle in the oil — or cut in the margarine — and, using a fork, whisk and press together until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add the water 1 tablespoon at a time, continuing to lightly stir with the fork, until the dough just comes together. Press into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and let rest in the fridge at least 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling: Heat oven to 425° F. Put berries, sugar, flour or cornstarch, lemon juice, zest, and cinnamon into a large bowl. Using a wooden spoon, mash gently. Let sit about 10 minutes.

Remove the crust from the fridge and divide it into two pieces. On a well-floured board, using a well-floured rolling pin, roll out one-half of the crust in a circle and fit it into a 9″ pie pan (leave a bit of crust to hang over the edges — but just a little bit). Pour in the filling. Roll out the remaining dough into a large rectangle, and, using a serrated knife, gently cut equally thick strips of dough. Weave the strips across the top of the pie to make a lattice crust. (Alternatively, roll another circle of pie crust into a circle and fit atop the filling. If doing this, cut several air vents in the top of the pie.)

Place the pie on a rimmed baking sheet (important! pie may leak) and place on the middle rack of the oven. Bake until crust is just golden, about 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350° and bake until golden brown and bubbling, about 30-40 minutes more. Remove from oven and cool pie thoroughly on a rack before serving. [/print_this]

[print_this]Pectin-Free Blackberry Jam

Note: this makes a small batch of jam, but is easily doubled, tripled, quadrupled … I like my jam on the lightly sweet side, so this is an instance where tasting as you is imperative. I also like to use organic or raw sugar in my jam (and in many of my baked goods) because I feel like it imparts a more mellow sweetness, but of course regular sugar will work just fine as well.

Makes about 2 cups jam

3 cups blackberries
1 1/2 cups sugar (add more if your berries are very tart)
2 teaspoons lemon juice

In a heavy bottomed sauce pan, combine blackberries, sugar and lemon juice. Using a wooden spoon, mash and crush the berries a bit. Cook mixture on high heat for 5 minutes, then reduce to medium heat and cook for about 15 minutes.

Remove from heat and pour into sterile jam jars or containers. Jam will thicken as it cools. If canning, proceed with your preserving, or let jam cool on the counter and then store in the refrigerator. [/print_this]


  1. 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!

  2. 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!

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