MOST people get their first experience of wild food with the school-child's favourite, blackberries. Even in the dusty London suburb where I grew up there were neglected corners where you could find them. Whenever we went for an autumn walk we'd come home with treasure wrapped in my father's handkerchief. The pies were wonderful, but the handkerchief remained a delicate pink for ever after.

The bramble, rubus fruticosus, will grow just about anywhere in Britain. Stopping it is the problem. Digging up roots, laying heavy-duty plastic to block the light - a friend tried all of these, but still it comes. Goats will eat it, but prefer a nice cardboard box. I've seen a pony craning to snatch mouthfuls of the stuff, but I don't think that can be typical. Perhaps it was bored.

If you are the proud owner of brambles, your consolation comes from making the shoots into beer in the spring and gathering enough fruit in late summer for all your jam, crumble and winemaking needs. It makes an excellent security fence, too. A country cure for rheumatism was to scramble under a bramble bush, one of those ancient traditions that died out for a good reason. Otherwise, almost any country or suburban hedgerow will supply you. Avoid places with heavy traffic, much dust, and fields that are likely to have been sprayed. Commons, quiet back lanes, and footpaths that run through set-aside are your safest bets.

The bramble has an affinity with thistles, to attack your ankles, and nettles, to go for your legs, not to mention its very own thorns for the rest of you. I have picked blackberries in shorts and sandals, but only once. The juiciest ones are always just out of reach, so a walking stick with a crooked handle is useful. The ideal time to pick is after four or five days without rain, which bloats the berries and makes them tasteless, but there is a lot of variety in the ripening pattern. The same stretch of hedgerow will hold sprays of blossom, green fruit, and clusters of luscious berries, the grape of the British Isles. The berry is ripe when it comes off just at the touch of your fingers, incidentally. Comes off, rolls down your arm, and lands in the nettles, often. Let it lie, there are plenty more.

The following is an easy recipe for blackberry cordial. The alcoholic element here is vodka, which tastes well. French rural supermarkets stock great vats of eau de vie at this time of year, into which goes every leftover fruit, leaf and root from le jardin de mon oncle. Bring some back if you're going, but remember that it is often stronger, generally 40%-60% alcohol, than most cheap vodkas, which are usually around 38%.

Blackberry cordial


For every kilo of blackberries you will need:

  • 75cl vodka
  • 100 grams raw cane, Demerara or molasses sugar
  • 100 grams vanilla sugar
  • One cm piece of cinnamon stick, broken into fragments but not crushed or ground
  • One heaped tablespoon of borage flowers, if you have them.


    1. Pick over the blackberries, removing bits of stalk and sepal and those deceptive ones which look ripe on one side but are green and stony on the other. Rinse the blackberries, shaking lightly to get rid of excess water. Put into a crock, dish or mixing bowl, scatter on the borage flowers if you're using them, and the pieces of cinnamon.

2. Slowly stir in the sugar with a wooden spoon.

3. Cover with a lid or plate and leave to stand for 24 hours.

4. Using a funnel, pour the mixture into a 1.5 litre screw top bottle. Pour in the vodka. Screw on the top.

5. Leave to stand for 14 days, shaking vigorously morning and evening.

6. Put by for six months.

7. Strain through a sieve into bottles. The sieve needs to be fine enough to keep out the pips. Label and use.

It makes a good after-dinner drink, and is also delicious as a sauce on ice-cream, or as the alcoholic element in trifle.

The fruit you have left in the sieve is squishy but nice, and has the added zing of vodka. I pick it over to remove the slivers of cinnamon, add 150 grams of apple, peeled, cored and cut into small pieces, plus100 cl of cherry juice, and make Tipsy Bramble Jam with it. Not many people make jam in April, not in this hemisphere at any rate.