31 Aug 2010

From hedgerow to plate – a dying trend?

We’ve just been away in the English Lake District for the Bank Holiday weekend and we were a tad alarmed, despite two days of gorgeous and warm late summer weather (and one of more typical for summer 2010; heavy rain), to see how definitely the season was already ticking over towards autumn.

The Lake District has huge swathes of land covered with trees, both cash crops of fast growing coniferous woodland and native deciduous species. There are very many places where you can look out over acre upon acre of trees and it was quite disappointing, in August, to see so many of them already turning to the golden colours of autumn. A season I love of itself, most definitely, but I like to have some summer after spring before I am ready to embrace it fully.

Please click on any of the photographs for a larger view.

Blackberries in late summer sunshine – some just perfect for picking, with more to ripen still.

Summer 2010, rather like that last two or three summers, has been most disappointing weather-wise. We had a lot of warm sunshine in May and June and this lured us into thinking we were about to launch into a pleasant summer – we even had a hosepipe ban, after the driest first 6 months of the year since records began, with reservoirs at record low levels from lack of rain.

Blackberries perched along the walls of Thirlmere reservoir – you can just see in the background that water levels here are still below normal.

But it just wasn’t to be, day after day it rained – and very hard too on many of those days – it topped up the reservoirs a treat it did, but prevented me from enjoying my garden and getting to eat or work outside throughout July and August.

So it has never really felt like we’ve had a proper summer this year – I think we’ve eaten outside maybe three times all year, with only 2 barbecues – and those were all in June. So seeing the trees weighed down with autumnal fruits like apples, plums and cherries, whilst lovely to see in itself, really serves to remind you that summer is more behind you than ahead of you, a feeling that always leaves me a little sad, especially when you’ve feel that you’ve not had chance to enjoy what there was of it more fully.

Spending the time picking the berries gives you the chance to meet some friends you might otherwise miss. A Speckled Wood butterfly that feeds on the nectar of bramble flowers and other woodland flower species.

But the seasonal development does have its own rewards and one of my late summer favourites is to be able to pick blackberries from the hedgerow to bake into puddings. I love the whole idea of picking something in the afternoon sunshine and eating it steaming hot and full of goodness later the same evening.

And it’s not just about the idea of free food just sitting there for the taking – it’s the mental well-being that accompanies it – the initial enjoyment of being in the fresh air (and hopefully sunshine too), with nothing to occupy your mind other than the rhythm of picking and avoiding the nettles and looking for the juiciest morsels.

The Peacock butterflies were especially partial to the lovely mauve coloured thistles growing amongst the brambles.

When you eat the resulting baked goods, I always have the sensation that they somehow have more nutritional value or heath benefits because of the way they were harvested – you know where they grew, know how environmentally sound they are – no air miles to dent your green credentials and the combined effort of enjoying picking them, making them into something yourself just seems to make them all the more delicious.

I tend to team my blackberries with some chopped apple. My preference is to use eating apples as they don’t need sweetening, so I can avoid adding sugar, although I use a spoonful to make the juice into a syrup that doesn’t soak quite as readily into the topping. For years I wondered why my sugar-free crumbles were gloopy underneath and one spoonful of sugar in the fruit cured that.

Someone commented today “why on earth would you bother yourself doing that, you can just get them in the supermarket?” so was somehow missing out this combined pleasurable experience. But I have the sneaky feeling that anyone who feels that way in the first place, simply wouldn’t get what the benefit really is.

We affectionately refer to this topping as a ‘spongle’ – a cross somewhere between a crumble and a sponge – it is as easy to make as a crumble . . . no, actually . . . even easier – goes on and looks like a crumble, but is more sponge-like underneath – and lighter than a crumble. Recipe linked below.

But I doubt very much that they’re alone in this thinking. When we were younger, you’d have to really know some good and secretive spots to get a reliable source of blackberries in any quantity – and would often get there and find brambles plucked barren by someone beating you there. But in the last few years, I’ve seen less and less people gathered in the hedgerows, clutching a container in one hand and picking with the other. It’s seemingly very much a dying practice.

You need the topping just thin and loose enough for the fruit juice to break through in places.

I suspect it has something to do with the current trends for instant gratification and global year-round food availability, coupled with less practical skills being taught in schools, like what we used to call; domestic science. Why learn how to make a fruit crumble, when you can dive into the freezer section of the supermarket and buy one for a modest price – and save yourself all that work.

Just ready for some cream – I had to wait for the steam from it to clear my lens to take the photographs, so it was piping hot, very light and not too sweet. Just perfect – and eaten only a couple of hours after picking the berries.

But for us, it’s an important and enjoyable seasonal treat – and even if I had money to burn, I can’t imagine not driving along country lanes scouring the hedgerows for the perfect combination of plentiful and reachable ripe fruit and a suitable place to park.

‘Spongle’ recipe:

The recipe I use for my favourite fruit topping as shown above is incredibly quick and easy to make and in fact, I make a large batch ready and store it in the fridge in an airtight container, ready to just spoon as much as required over prepared fruit in a heatproof dish and pop in the oven.

As I’m diabetic, I don’t habitually bake or make puddings any longer, but I do make an exception for this dessert a few times a year. So consequently, I don’t like my puddings too sweet, so prefer to make it with eating apples that don’t need additional sugar and have adapted a much reduced sugar version of the recipe for my own use – it took several attempts to get the proportions right. It’s the same basic ingredients as a crumble (flour, butter and sugar), but using melted butter instead of rubbing it in and some baking powder and self raising flour to make it rise a little, hence it’s lightness – the underneath layer adjacent to the fruit is more sponge-like, with a light crumble-style rubble-textured topping. Having found it so deliciously easy to make and so much nicer to eat, I doubt I’ll bother making a classic crumble again – this is vastly superior.

I found the original recipe in this blog which in turn is a re-publication/adaptation of a recipe from Nigella Lawson.

4 thoughts on “From hedgerow to plate – a dying trend?

  1. I’ve just made my first batch of blackberry (and other berry) jam this morning. It’s addictive, blackberry picking!

  2. Glad someone else enjoys doing it too. We swapped a bag of our picked blackberries for one of cooking apples – so my next lot of apples in puds will be from trees I know too. You’d think in these times of heightened environmental and food sourcing awareness, more people would do this.

  3. We had blackberry and apple crumble last night. Both fruits picked from the hedgerows or trees. Even in a city there are places to get lots of lovely fruit.

    I too love Autumn, but like you, would have enjoyed a bit more of the Summer.

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