Saturday, July 4, 2009

The truth about blackberries in Durham

There was a great post on the Duke Park neighborhood e-mail list this week about the joys of picking blackberries in Durham. I enjoyed picking them when I was little but haven't thought much about it lately -- but now I'm inspired by Tom Whiteside! Read below for more. (And the photo above of a Durham blackberry patch was snagged from the Durham blog Shift of Tow posted last year on July 4.)

Dear Neighbors -
The fruit, not the gizmo. We are in the middle of blackberry season, and as usual my fingers are purple and my arms are covered with tiny scratches. My freezer is filling up. I am very happy. This wonderful fruit is everywhere, we have an inner city abundance of a culinary treat and it is a blessing. I've got a day off work, what the heck, I am going to spread the word about blackberries. In case you're interested, I offer Blackberry 101.

The stalks and brambles grow wild all over the place, you can find them along railroad tracks, behind buildings, alongside parking lots, in various places along the American Tobacco Trail, on the roadcut hillsides above 15-501 bypass in the vicinity of the intersection with the Durham Freeway, all along the Durham Freeway, on the hill across from Sam's, etc etc etc. I get a few, wild, in my backyard hedge. Look around carefully and you will find plentitude. They are easiest to spot in spring when the white blossoms on bending stalks stand out at a distance. This is, by definition, a common weed. These days I don't go more than a mile or two from my house for blackberries. Working at a leisurely pace I can pick a gallon in about an hour and a half. If I wanted to do this every day it would be easy. There are plenty of berries, plenty, plenty, plenty.

The fruit turns from green to red to black. Right now you will find all three colors on the same stalk. You can pick berries for several weeks, going back to the same place every few days to get what has ripened up. (They are not bananas, they will not ripen off the plant.) The berry is ripe when it is completely black. A ripe berry will come off with a gentle tug; if you have to pull it excessively hard to detach then it is not ripe As you pick you will find that some black ones still have one or more bright red little globule things, that's fine, it's ripe enough. But if you see a lot of red mixed in with black on the same berry, leave it for tomorrow. Ideally the ripe one is solid shiny black, and it comes off readily in your hand. If you find one that's more of a dull black, a bit past ripe and mushy, go ahead and taste it - sometimes these are already fermented on the bush, it's like a very fresh shot of blackberry vodka. (more on that later)

The bad stuff - blackberry thorns are wicked. As a wild plant that likes to grow back into space that's been cut, the blackberry often shares habitat with poison ivy. (For example, there's plenty of blackberry between the Wachovia and the old Kmart, and there is some absolutely spectacular poison ivy, too, with purple rusty stuff growing atop the leaves. I'm not picking there anymore.) More often than not it's decent territory for snakes, too. So generally I wear long pants and work boots and a heavy long sleeved shirt. Most days it's not much fun at 3:00 in the afternoon; early morning is best to stay out of heat and sun. I usually go before breakfast, this morning was absolutely perfect weather. I take plastic containers with lids, because it sure is a drag to spill a quart of berries. Just in case you don't like snakes or poison ivy, you can still pick blackberries - they are not always in the middle of brambles. Some of my favorite places are quite easily accessible and safe even in shorts and sandals, and no I'm not going to tell you where those are.

If you see a few ripe berries but not many, stay right there and look carefully. Look underneath. The ripe fruit gets heavy and pulls the stalk down, and you will often find the best stuff down in among other weeds. Sometimes the blackberry bush can climb up into small trees, so you can even find them overhead. But always look way down low, underneath everything else. It IS a jungle out there, so stay in one place and look low. Sometimes you find fruit on big established brambles, and sometimes you find perfectly nice fruit on rather lonely solitary stalks. At the end of the season you are picking the last black ones and there are no more red ones coming along. Even then, you might still find more berries nearby, on different plants in deeper shade.

People have said to me, "Oh I wouldn't want to take the food away from the birds." If you get into the bushes you probably will meet some birds and they might fuss at you, but that's probably because you are near their nest. If they are fussing badly you are probably too near, so try to back out carefully. Otherwise, you're not going to hurt them by taking "their" food. Once you see how many berries there are, and how many are inaccessible to you because you don't have wings, you won't worry about the birds.

So what to do with all this fruit? Wash it, drain it, eat it. Fresh with cereal, fresh with vanilla ice cream. Cobblers and pies are the best. The black turns to a beautiful deep purple when cooked, it's just an outrageously gorgeous color. Some people don't like the seeds, no problem, it's easy to take them out - make syrup or jelly. I like syrup, and it's easy - add 1/2 cup sugar to a half gallon of berries, a tiny bit of water, cook it down slowly and strain the seeds out. Refrigerated it lasts for weeks, it can be frozen. More or less sugar to taste. Cook it longer if you want it thicker, great on pancakes. Don't cook it so long and you've got an easy liquid form for making beverages. The taste is unique but is like pomegranate or black currants - that tasty dark fruit bitter flavor. For a soft drink I add syrup to regular ginger ale. For an adult beverage, add a splash of blackberry syrup to Blenheims ginger ale (hot hot or regular hot) and vanilla vodka. Careful, this is way easy to drink - very refreshing and it goes down like Kool Aid (and I mean that in a good way). If you freeze blackberries in a single layer on baking sheets they will stay like individual frozen berries when you bag them; if you put a few cups of fresh berries into a plastic bag and freeze them like that you will have one big clump of frozen berries, fine for wintertime cobbler or pies. BTW, we have a couple of Blenheim's bootleggers in the neighborhood, they make the run to South Carolina every once in a while and personally I am in good supply, but if anyone knows of a local retailer please let me know.

You can buy blackberries at the Farmer's Market and they look pretty good, all nice and big and shiny. The wild berries you forage for free might be smaller most of the time, but if you look around you can find plenty of impressive berries wild, too. Even the smallest berries cook down fine to syrup, I usually have two containers, one for juicy (to eat fresh or cobbler) and the other for not-so-juicy (for syrup).

So forage well. Here's a toast to the common-as-weeds blackberry, abundant as far as you might wander. It is a tough, scrappy and delicious part of our world. I nominate blackberry as the Official Duke Park Neighborhood Wild Fruit.

- Tom


Marsosudiro said...

Thanks for posting that great piece. There used to be tons of blackberries on Pettigrew (i.e., the other street next to Sam's Quick Mart) but those got mowed last year. Boo.

There are tons along Kangaroo Drive by the US Post Office.

I love picking wild blackberries. Such a gift.

Steve said...

Ooooh, Phil, thanks for sharing a location! I'll check that out this week and some other likely spots. Cobbler, here I come!

Hans said...


I was told that they spray the berries here in WA along the freeway exits. The berries that I picked didn't show any signs of being sprayed, (not dead or dying or wilted)

I've also read that berries along side a high traffic area are polluted with air pollution or road pollution from the cars and trucks.

personally I find this hard to believe.

Do you have any thoughts on this subject? Couldn't the berries be soaked and cleaned pretty easily?