John Arnold: This is the best crop of blackberries I’ve ever seen!

It’s been a tough 18 months so little pleasures like a bumper blackberry crop are a welcome bonus, so says John Arnold in his weekly column
John Arnold: This is the best crop of blackberries I’ve ever seen!

BEARING FRUIT: Blackberry picking at Pouladuff, Cork, 70 years ago - in the first week of September, 1951

WHAT’S the difference between an argument and a debate? Very little, I suppose, but a debate sounds more ordered and not likely to descend into insults and verbal fisticuffs.

We all know people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing – well, I am acquainted with a few anyway! Everything has a value but some things are priceless, like an old song or poem discovered anew, or visiting a special place.

Money can’t buy the sense of pride and satisfaction one gets at seeing something wonderful in sport, in nature, or observing a little kindness shown in an unexpected way.

Anyway, one of the great bounties of the recent beautiful spell of weather has been the way nature responds. 

We’re into September, traditionally the start of Autumn, but it’s as if Mother Nature is giving us some ‘extra time’ with heat and sunshine.

God knows it’s been a tough 18 months so little pleasures like the last two weeks are welcome bonuses.

I never in all me born days saw such a crop of blackberries on the brambles as this year. I think it was back in 2008 or 2009 that we had a harvest of fruit that was given us freely.

For some other unknown reason, the apple crop - well, ours at least - is veery poor this year - sure, we can’t have it every way!

Well, on Wednesday evening of last week the cows were returning to the High Field after milking. It’s well named indeed, the highest field on the farm. From the top of it you can see Galteemore away to one side and the Comeraghs in Waterford in another direction with the sun winking on the windows of Mount Melleray Abbey.

As the cows slowly wended their way back to their night’s grazing, I followed them along. I brought a plastic bucket with me and an hour later, when I returned to the haggard as the shades of night were falling, I had an overflowing supply of juicy blackberries.

If you want to make blackberry jam, you have to be very critical and selective in the picking. Any red or green fruit or any berries going a bit soft need to be discarded - only absolutely perfect fruit will do for jam so you’d often discard half of what you’d pick.

For jelly on the other hand, there’s no need to be so conservative or choosey. While I love the bit of a ‘bite’ in the jam, many others prefer the jelly, so that’s what I’d resolved to make.

To make a long story shorter, before I hit the pillow that night I had my mixture of four pounds of blackberries and a similar quantity of apples and a sprinkle of water boiled to a mush. The fruit drained into a bowl overnight and produced just over five pints of purple juice.

While we were at the cows next morning, the juice was back on the Rayburn heating up. I added five pounds of sugar and an hour before the Angelus bell rang in the Church, I had the jelly jarred. 

Ten pound pots I got from the fruit. When I returned to the kitchen in mid afternoon, ‘twas after setting, job done.

After a match that night, I was discussing farming, grass growth, cows milking and other matters of a lofty agricultural nature with a person who was no stranger to me. In passing I mentioned the bumper berry crop this year and my culinary exploits of the previous evening and morning. Soon came the reply: “Sure you’d buy the jam in Idal or Little for about fifty cents a jar - waste of time and money making it.”

But, I explained, there’s more to it than money. He wouldn’t hear of anything save the price, the price and my time and the cost of the oil in the cooker and the cost of the sugar – “You’d be way better off buying it.”

There’s a debate about to become an argument! I suppose if I took that attitude I’d never fatten the pigs, or grow beetroot or onions or lettuce, but there’s more to life and to food than money.

It was Archbishop Thomas Croke, first patron of the GAA, who described the ancient games of hurling and Gaelic football as being ‘racy of the soil’. Well, I think it’s the same with me and the jelly and whatever else we can produce. 

Whether it’s ‘foraging’ what nature yields or growing and producing stuff here on the land and from the land, there’s something extra special in it. It’s not just the taste or the flavour or knowing where it comes from. 

It’s deeper than that and connects me with the place I was born and reared in.

In our youth, picking blackberries for selling each week to Carrs of Curraglass during ‘the season’ was a vital source of money for sweets, comics, small toys and other things we considered luxuries. I don’t condemn the higher standard of living and life today, but still cling to some links with the past which are still ever present.

I can imagine my grandfather or maybe his father in the 1870s walking these same fields and picking blackberries from these same ditches. No money can buy that kind of continuity and closeness with one’s abode.

Oh yes, of course I forgot to say when the juice was all drained and strained from the apple/berry mixture, the two pigs got the fruit pulp - you know the saying, there’s no waste where there’s pigs! And sure, the cost of the oil to keep the Rayburn going to boil the fruit - well, it’s going all day every day and most nights there’s a pot of spuds on for the pigs breakfast next morning!

Last year, I think I made 48 jars of jam and jelly and we gave away the most of them to family and friends. Next week I might pick sloes and rose hips and more blackberries for another unique hedgerow jelly.

Usually you’d get the full month of September before the berries ‘go off’, though in a mild autumn there could still be fruit on the briars until October. Then, from November 1 on, the ‘puca’ takes over and according to the story I heard from the late Jim Willis, you daren’t eat a blackberry after All Saints Day!

Jim said: “The puca was no joke, never seen but you’d see the signs alright with the blackberries fouled and spoiled.”

I said to Jim: “Maybe ‘twas the frost caused the berries to go bad?”

“What are you talking about, there might be no frost and the blackberries might be grand the last day of October, plump and sweet - two days later they’d be rotten - that’s the puca for you now, mark my words.”

Making jam or fattening pigs has little or nothing to do with saving or making money. Yerra no, shure it’s way more important than that!

They talk about ‘Blas na hEireann’ - the taste of Ireland - and it’s pure true, you can’t bate your own!

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.

(Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney)

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