If one thing transports me to my childhood its picking blackberries. In fact its an image often used in books of children scrambling through the hedgerows, clothes, hands and mouths stained purple with the juice from the autumnal fruit. If you have had the experience of picking blackberries and eating them off the bush in the late summer sun its a memory that tends to stick with you as perfection. This is despite the reality of the brambles scratching your arms, nettles stinging your ankles and the fact that the biggest, juiciest blackberries are always too high to reach. My memories are of my mother and I driving to Dunsany to my piano lessons and stopping on the return journey to gather up the berries for jam making.The car would be abandoned on the side of the road and we would pick as many as we could with me eating half of them. We also went through a phase of collecting rose hips as there was a huge push on by Concern to gather them to send to Africa. I remember wondering how expensive it must be to send bags of heavy rose hips all the way to Africa and feeling awfully sorry if that was all they had to eat. It was years later when I reminded my mother about it that she laughed and told me they made a syrup from it as rose hips were very high in Vit C. Adding to the hazy sense of happiness I remember from this time are the piano lessons with the wonderfully named Gypsy Murray. Her piano was in a small room stuffed with furniture and photographs and she taught me my scales and music pieces from the ages of 6 to 12, pieces that I can still play today despite forgetting anything I learnt as an older child. But I digress from the blackberries.
My mothers brother and sister lived together in Ashbourne and often sold produce at their gate, rhubarb,free range eggs, blackcurrants a few raspberries and occasionally a pot or 2 of homemade jam. I spent a lot of my summers there and would feel very important playing “shop” if there were any customers. I loved listening into the conversations too which would take place often times at the gates with my aunt in full flow and my Uncle nowhere to be seen as he was shy and would never get a word in edgeways.( You can guess which one I take after !) They would discuss many topics always starting with the weather and how it affected the crops.They would proceed onto general comments on the state of the country and would apportion blame or credit wherever they felt it was due. The conversation would then dip into the real meat by going local and everyone’s antics and mini crimes, scandals and good news would be dissected and analysed to everyones satisfaction. Somewhere along this interaction money would disappear into my aunt’s pinny ( her apron ) and they would both hail each other and promise to see each other at mass on Sunday. I would then be admonished for asking the crass question of how much did you make and sent off to tell my Uncle it was time for his tea.
After tea Uncle John would whistle softly and ask would we go blackberrying. We would head off down the field in the evening sunshine and wrestle with briars and try to avoid the nettles to get at the luscious fruit. We would return home with pounds of fruit and I would fall into bed and sleep for Ireland.
My mother and aunt both made jam and would swap pots of it comparing notes and asking did you get a good set. My two jobs were to add the butter ( yes butter to the jam as it helps make it glossy and stop too much scum from forming according to their jam making wisdom ) and I would then get to put on the wax discs on top of the hot jam to prevent it from going mouldy in storage.
I grew up ,went to college, got a job and fulfilled a lifelong ambition of travelling but never forgot about my jam making. One year we had a craft fair where I worked and I decided to make jam. Uncle John was hauled into service collecting blackberries once more and storing it in his freezer until I could come and collect it. I remember I made about 200 pots of jams, jellies and chutneys and sold every one of them. I also remember thinking this is very hard work for little return but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
For many years I forgot all about the simple pleasures of blackberry picking until we moved back to the country in 2002. I remember being so delighted the following summer to find blackberries everywhere along the lane beside our house. Our dogs at the time got used to the annual blackberry picking as on the return leg of my walk I would stop to collect as much as I could. Molly my little border collie would eat the lower berries off the bushes or wait patiently beside me until I gave her one.
These days I don’t even have to go down the lane as I allowed a very large briar to grow in one of the old buildings that now houses our hens. Now they peck at my ankles and demand I throw them a few berries as they luckily cannot reach them which leaves all the more for me and my jam making. Homemade jam seems to be well received as a gift so I’ll continue to make it and also enjoy the trip down memory lane.