Jam today... and my fruit jelly could land me a show rosette!

Blackberry picking is like a 'rite of passage' says John Arnold in his weekly column.
Jam today... and my fruit jelly could land me a show rosette!
Blackberry picking at Pouladuff, Cork in 1951.

I COULDN’T find the muslin bag I had last year so a semi-retired pillowcase had to do instead.

Seldom enough that you’d get a crop of blackberries out in July, but the seventh month had still a week to run — the last week of summer — when I started picking from the bramble briars.

They call certain things in life ‘a rite of passage’, like going to the first dance or disco or maybe starting to learn how to drive. Blackberry picking is a bit like that, only it’s more of an annual thing really.

I saw a great production of Brian Friel’s Dancing At Lughnasa in the Everyman last week. In ancient Celtic pagan times the ‘old’ feasts were very important. They marked the coming and going of the seasons, worshipping various gods and deities and in many cases sacrifices were offered. Many experts can see a very close link between the Celtic festivals and those still marked and celebrated in parts of Africa and Asia.

I suppose long, long ago the seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter carved up the year between ’em. Spring marked the beginning or awakening from the slumber of nature for crops and trees and flowers. Followed by summer- long warm days where fine weather stretched out before us like a green, comfortable blanket.

Then the days were ‘drawing in’ as chillier Autumn shortened the day and lengthened the night. When winter came we knew it would be colder. Growth was gone as the land and the soil rested after the labours of the year.

That’s the way it was apparently for thousands of years, long before B.C. or A.D. Nowadays, things are really tri na chéile altogether as the seasons seem to be mixed up in every way so feasts like Lughnasa at the start of August are all but faded from the memory.

The Mundy sisters in Friel’s masterpiece are rural dwellers. In August they’d pick, not blackberries, but bilberries — what we in Cork would call ‘hurts’. The hurt is a tiny, soft berry which if you squeeze too tightly when picking simply turns into mush in your hand. I know of a few places where hurts grow but not in such abundance as the humble blackberry. In Irish, the bilberry is Fraochán so Glenville probably gets its name Gleann an Fraochán — as the glen of the hurts — rather than Gleann an Phreachain — the glen of the crow.

How times have changed! Fifty years ago the roadsides and fields of farm ditches would be teeming with youngsters for most of August. The idea of children getting ‘pocket money’ only came in when we joined the EEC around 1971. During the summers of the late ’60s and early ’70s the ‘blackberry money’ was the currency of the day.

Now, picking a stone (14lbs) of blackberries was no easy task. One evening after milking the cows last week I plucked over a kilo of berries in a little over an hour — you needed seven times that to make up a stone.

Twice a week ‘during the season’, Carrs of Curraglass called to us and many more in the district to weigh and pay for the fruit on the spot. I suppose if children of today were blackberry picking and making money from the venture, they’d probably have to pay income tax on their earnings!

There are probably several reasons why today’s younger generations don’t follow in our footsteps. With the huge increase of cars, even on country roads, it’s no longer safe to leave youngsters on the roads on their own. Back in the 1960s around here, we’d nearly know exactly what car would be due to pass at 11 o’clock or three or five — all locals.

I mentioned earlier about the advent of pocket money. When I was young we might get a shilling or two for sweets every now and then so the financial bonanza that the blackberry money brought was very welcome. I’d say when we started picking ‘for sale’ we were getting maybe 2/6 a stone but within a year or two that had increased to 5 bob a stone.

Fifty years ago, if you could make £5 or £6 in August and early September you’d be away for slates as there weren’t too many ways to spend cash in rural areas. By the time girls, dances, ‘the pictures’ and going for chips came on the scene, our fledgling career as blackberry pickers was over.

More and more regular cutting of briars on farms has also lessened the amount of fruit available. Every year we try and leave a few ditches without cutting until October to ensure we still have blackberry supplies. Wasps, honey and bumble bees and butterflies also share in the fruit of the bramble. Talking of butterflies, are they an endangered species too? In former years you’d see an array of them in all the colours of the rainbow. All I’ve spotted this year are the common White cabbage butterfly. The gorgeous Red Admiral and the smaller White Admiral are never to be seen nowadays, sprays and loss of habitat are the main reasons for their demise.

I took my two pounds of blackberries and the same weight of apples —the Grenadier variety are ready for picking by now — a cupful of water and put the lot into a heavy based saucepan on the hob. After an hour or so the fruit was reduced to pulp. I put my pillowcase over a wide dish and carefully, very carefully, emptied the fruit into the pillow cover. I put the sweeping brush atop two chairs then tied my pillow cover around the brush with a sturdy cable tie. The juice dropped away overnight into the dish. In the morning I had just over two pints of juice. Back on the cooker with the liquid and I added a pound of sugar for every pint of juice. While we were milking the cows the mixture was boiling away nice and steady. By half nine it was jarred, covered and labelled. The ‘prayer for setting’ was said and there was no more I could do after that.

Did it set? Did it what... you could turn the jar upside down on the table and t’wouldn’t fall down!

There’s a new show coming up in Rathcormac next month and I should be in line for a prize for my apple and blackberry jelly. The last time I won a show prize was around 1970 when I got 1st and 2nd for ‘Two Heads of Cabbage’ at Fermoy Show — the same year I was lepping as I thought my lettuce and onions were in the reckoning but were among the ‘also rans’.

Last year or the previous year I had a fierce problem with ‘setting’ — I think twas nearly 20 jars of blackcurrant watery, runny jelly I made. Now, in fairness, I did a spot of re-branding. I removed the ‘Jam’ label and substituted it with the word ‘Coulis’ — apparently the coulis (pronounced cooley) is all the go as an adornment on the side of the plate. I sold it all to a cookery school/restaurant in Shanagarry. They were on the phone last year wondering could I make 300 jars of the stuff! I had to say no because twas only a culinary freak. If I tried I’d never again be able to replicate the product.

In a month or so, the rose hips, laden with vitamin C, will be on the ditches with the crimson-coloured fruit. Equal amounts of blackberries, rose hips and apples make a lovely jelly. Now is the time for the berries, though if the weather stayed frost free you’d get blackberries until the end of September.

A good friend, the late Jim Willis, warned me never to pick the berries after the first of November — no matter how good they look. Jim said that by then the Púca, a wandering, mischievous spirit, would be after defiling and fouling whatever blackberries were still left on the bushes.

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