HEDGEROW RAMBLINGS FROM A NOSTALGIC CHEF
When somebody says ‘blackberries’ what comes to mind? Autumn, the changing season, chilly misty mornings.
For me it is the end of the summer holidays, a treat before we returned to school. Out with my friends, anticipation weighing down the hedgerows and driving us on our bikes through the Somerset countryside in search of the first berries to make the change from dull green to blushing black. Those autumns were full of scrapes with angry farmers who didn’t approve of us clambering over hedgerows on their land. I remember sore fingers, stained lips and my mother, a flannel in hand and a disapproving look in her eye. There were holidays in France where blackberrying was a solitary activity in a different yet equally inspiring landscape. Such memories are the foundation of my childhood and shaped my approach to food.
Fast forward to present day and over the past weeks I have been assailed by that nostalgic feeling whenever I’m out with our dogs and my daughter, Iris. Sharing those experiences, I love cleaning her stained fingers and scratched palms, and am a little less worried about the mess than my mother was.
But for me the bramble and its beautiful fruit is symbolic of a food ethos that goes beyond children wrestling with thorns to gorge on juicy mouthfuls of berries. It is the most accessible of wild foods, from the inner cities to the wildest countryside the bramble will take hold in the most impoverished soils and there are few people who can resist picking, yet if asked wouldn’t think of themselves as foragers. For many it is their only experience of wild food and there is something honest, simple and grounding in this.
I hope in this digital age, that we do not lose this connection to the land, the implicit relationship we have with nature as we reach into the brambles. It is a connection to the food we eat that is not mediated by supermarkets and factory processing. In my role as Head Chef, taking younger chefs out into the Cotswold countryside, I want nothing more than to inspire them to explore what that means, to help inform how they cook.
Back to the blackberry as fruit rather than symbol, it is the most versatile of berries – jams, jellies and compotes are filling the larder; desserts are garnished with them; ices made; they sit beautifully with game; sour pickles transforming cheese boards. We are preserving the season, in the way that it has been going on for centuries, shoring up against the cold fruitless months of winter. Yet for all the nostalgia around the blackberry, there is nothing old fashioned about this fruit; our friends at Newton & Pott produce a delicious ‘Blackberry & Gin Jam’ that flies off the shelf in hip London delis; the acclaimed chef Jeremy Lee is headlining his new dessert menu with a ’Blackberry & Geranium Buttermilk Pot’ at the Soho restaurant Quo Vadis and in The Baa at Thyme we have a seductively delicious cocktail of blackberry liqueur & bourbon topped with fresh lime and prosecco. It is so very good we thought we should share the recipe for our ‘Hedgerow Bramble’ in this edition of Thoughts from Thyme.
Matt Wardman is Head Chef at the award-winning restaurant The Swan at Southrop