We are having a wonderful year for wild blackberries. Steve, determined to make the most of it, has been tramping out to a patch every morning for a couple of weeks. It’s a lovely spot, surrounded by sugar maple, tulip poplar and sassafras trees, and Steve doesn’t mind the hike through our (and, to be honest, our absentee neighbors’) overgrown old farm fields to get to them.
He doesn’t mind spending an hour or so shuffling around a tangle of blackberry brambles and bittersweet. He doesn’t mind the poison ivy, the stickers, the slugs or the spiders. Because Steve loves wild blackberries. And because Steve has a bee suit.
We have blackberries because they’re found in fallow fields all over the world. We have a bee suit because, a couple of times, Steve unsuccessfully tried to keep honeybees. We no longer have a hive (though at times Steve imagines they’re just hiding in the woods) but we still have the thick, stinger-resistant suit. Steve uses it as a coverall for unpleasant occasions such as chicken coop cleaning. But, along with a pair of Sorel boots (which he picked up this February during a particularly nasty NYC ice storm), the bee suit has also proven to be an essential part of blackberry picking.
Lacking a bee suit herself, Michelle has so far shown little interest in crawling about a blackberry patch with Steve. (Though she is tempted by tales of an apple tree growing up the side of our old tobacco barn.) But she has more than made up for her reticence by banging out batch after batch of blackberry jam.
The tiny, tart wild berries, cooked down with sugar in the way recommended by John Egerton (as modified by Michelle’s mother), make a terrific topping for tender biscuits. Which is good, because there will most likely never be any Gourmandistan honey.
WILD BLACKBERRY JAM
(adapted from John Egerton’s Southern Food)
- 4 c. wild blackberries
- 3 c. sugar
Clean slugs, bugs, spiderwebs, leaves and stems from blackberries. Rinse in a colander and let dry.
Place berries in a large cooking pot. This jam boils up a lot, so use a much larger pot than you think you will need. Stir and mash the berries over low heat. (Yes, Ken Rivard, this is yet another great use for a potato masher.)
Add sugar and stir in. When sugar is dissolved, increase heat and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring frequently, for 18 to as much as 30 minutes. There will be a great deal of foam, which you can skim off and discard.
Judging when the jam is done can be difficult. For some reason, using a candy thermometer really doesn’t work with wild blackberry jam. Taking this jam to the usual 220° F can result in what Steve recently called “blackberry taffy.” In prior years, the jam would often take up to 30 minutes to set. This year, even 20 minutes has been too much. You can test it on a cool plate. When a bit of the jam stays in place and doesn’t run much, it is done. (This is why, if you have the luxury, it’s good to make a number of batches and combine them in a large bowl before putting in jars. If your first batch is too close to “taffy,” make the next one runny, or vice versa. It will work out in the end.)
Place in clean jars. Cool, then freeze.
NOTE: Like all jams, you don’t want to make more than about 4 cups at a time as it will take too long to heat up and flavor will be lost.