On Brambles

A detour from the scheduled work on Meister Eberhard to the seasonal pleasure or brambling. The European bramble or blackberry is one of the few wild fruits that most Germans safely recognise and will forage. Picking blackberries is one of the pleasures of late summer that is shared all over the country. The plant’s ability to thrive in marginal conditions and its robust defenses mean that it is commonly found – either deliberately introduced or simply allowed to put down roots – along railway embankments, airport fences, motorways, and other areas where unauthorised entry needs discouraging. In many gardens and hedgerows, it once functioned as a poor man’s razor wire. Actually getting it out of a perimeter once it has been introduced is a nearly hopeless task.

I took a very German day trip with my son (who loves trains) to ride a historic railbus to the Baltic shore. On the way, while waiting at railway stations and walking along roads, we encountered bramble bushes in sufficient quantity to fill both our lunchboxes to capacity. There are now six jars of blackberry jam cooling in my kitchen, and since my son helped pick the fruit, these are ‘his’. Whenever he breakfasts with me, one option on the table will be the jam that reminds him of a pleasant summer day.

Making blackberry jam is incredibly easy. Even just adding sugar will produce a decent result. But Germans take their jam seriously. This may be worth an entire article at some point, but right now suffice it to say that gelling sugar with added pectin in three strengths is a supermarket staple across the country. My favourite for blackberries is 2:1, meaning two parts fruit to one part sugar by weight. With blackberries, the added pectin produces an almost slicable firmess that I enjoy. If you prefer your jam thinner, simply adding regular sugar at a rate of 1 part to 2 parts of fruit actually works without having to resort to lengthy boiling times.

The main pleasure, to my mind, lies in the picking, though. The fruit is not easy to harvest. Every berry is a small victory against determined opposition, removed from hidden spots under leaves armed with wicked, backward-pointing thorns on the underside, gently eased from its lodgement among spiky tendrils, and carefully transferred to its basket as unsquished as possible. Both the reward for success and the punishment for carelessness are instantaneous and impersonal. Especially ladies may consider making brambling part of an outing with prospective suitors: It requires patience and dexterity, and you will be able to observe at first hand their ability to locate and gently manipulate small and tender objects in tight quarters, their inventiveness (because there is often a way to get at ones that are just out of arm’s reach if you can think on your feet), and their tolerance for frustration (because the biggest and juiciest ones will usually be the ones you just can’t manage).

For all the pleasure it gives us, the blackberry rarely features in historic recipes. Among the berries, it was late in making the transition from foraged to farmed, and the thornless varietals that have made it a viable mass market crop are developments of the twentieth century. The only medieval example of a recipe involving blackberries I am aware of is #15 from the Mittelniederdeutsches Kochbuch (also known as the Wolfenbüttel MS of the Harpestreng tradition):

If you would make a good puree of brambles, let them be picked as you need them. Pound them in a mortar, pass them through a cloth, set them by the fire and let them boil. Take a good pure wheat flour, toast (gloyge) it so that it does not taste burned (eynsmecke na brande), put it in and let it boil. Take honey and spices. Add to that and let it boil so that it has its (proper) thickness. That way it is good.

I still prefer my jam, but this is actually also good. Happy hunting!

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