Well last month I wrote about afternoon tea in the sun and since then the clouds have gathered and there is an autumn nip in the air. I do love this time of year, when the mornings are a bit more dewy and crisp and the nights start pulling in a bit. This is also the time to go “brambling” or blackberry picking. Some have been out for a good month now, but there is still some good foraging to be had. I like brambling, you know where you are with it and they aren’t ambiguous, as is sometimes the case with other berries that on a good day might kill you or at best render you out of action for a bit. Just as I like the idea of mushroom foraging but I’m not knowledgeable enough to risk anything more adventurous than an obvious field mushroom.
There is also so much you can do with the humble blackberry and let’s not forget the main attraction – it’s free if you go out and pick them yourself. I try not to go along hedgerows that are near a busy road, as you don’t want car fumes on them and I also try to avoid situations where they are likely to have been sprayed if they are next to a field. Other than that, armed with sturdy boots, thick trousers and a walking stick to tempt the tricky briars to be within picking reach, it gives a walk in the fresh air another dimension. You of course need to take some sort of receptacle to put your berries in , a few old margarine tubs do the trick. One word of advice though, in your quest to reach the berries that are always tantalizingly out of reach try not to topple over into a ditch or a patch of nettles, it hurts – I know from experience. Also look out for sleepy wasps hiding; they may pay you back for waking them up.
When you get your bounty home, they undoubtedly with have grubs in them. I just soak them in a bowl of water with a splash of vinegar in and the grubs don’t like it and float to the top. I rinse them off and do that a few times until you are grub free.
Once you have done that, the choice is endless really. I tend to have a bit of a pecking order on quality. The really big juicy ones end up in a cake – (recipe to follow) and the ones that are not quite so good get made into Bramble vinegar. If you have never tried this, I urge you to give it a go. There is nothing finer than homemade Yorkshire pudding with a good slug of bramble vinegar on top. My Dad Mick Carter remembers that his Uncle Bill Howsam would always start his Sunday lunch with Yorkshire pudding topped with Bramble vinegar. This of course hailed back to the days when meat was scarce and you needed to fill up before your main meat course, even though there was no reason for Uncle Bill to continue to do this, as there was always and abundance of meat available, he stubbornly refused to give up his Yorkshire pudding and bramble vinegar first. Born in 1901 he worked all his life on the land at Steadman’s in Bucknall, never having learnt to drive, he used to bike there and back from Horsington. He certainly wasn’t one for progress, so much so that he even refused to entertain such new-fangled gadgets as the thermos flask. Every week my Great Grannie Howsam would buy a bottle of Lucozade and when it was empty it would be washed and filled with the black tea left in the pot from breakfast and Great Uncle Bill would apparently take his cold tea with him to have with his packed dinner, refusing to accept that if he had a flask he could have enjoyed hot tea with his dinner instead!
I would like to share with you this family recipe, I believe it dates back to at least my Great Grannie Howsam’s era. I don’t think it is unique to Lincolnshire, as other old regional cookbooks and WI cookbooks have versions of this recipe; you quite often get them for Raspberry vinegar too.
Like my Boiled Fruit cake recipe which was featured in this column last Autumn, the copy of the recipe I have is written on an old Prudential Assurance Company Limited Card, as my Aunty Carrie (Holland) nee Howsam, who lived in Horncastle was the Pru’s Agent covering all the Wolds Villages to the East of Horncastle. She covered this huge area on her push bike! There must have been some blank cards lying around at home and the recipe is tucked inside a Warnes’s Everyday Model Cookery Book, which was compiled and edited by Mary Jewry and this edition was published in 1886. There were many different versions and editions of this book and it was one of the main competitors to the Beeton’s Books, the most famous of which “Mrs Beeton’s Household Management”, which was first published in 1861.
Howsam’s Bramble Vinegar.
You will need a bowl big enough for your brambles, a maslin or big pan, measuring jug, wooden spoon and a funnel. Clingfilm.
Cover the brambles with white vinegar (not posh white wine vinegar, normal white vinegar), cover with clingfilm and leave for 24 hours to stew. I give them a mash up every now and again.
Keep your vinegar bottle you will need it. Give it a good wash and then sterilize it in a hot oven when you are boiling your bramble vinegar. You will need a jug and a little funnel too to pour your vinegar in when it has cooked.
To every quart (2 pints) of liquid add 1lb of sugar and boil for 20 minutes until it thickens.
I have made two tweaks to this recipe, but I’ll leave it to you whether you wish to stick to the original. I strain my brambles after they have had their soaking in vinegar and then add the 1lb of sugar to the beautiful brambly pink liquid that is left. That’s because we don’t like the pips, but they might not bother you.
The second tweak is that I use jam sugar as it ensures that you get a nice syrupy consistency, which is what you are aiming for and I don’t find that it compromises the flavour.
When it’s at the right consistency pour it into your vinegar bottle, put the lid on whilst it is hot. It should keep fine in a cool dark cupboard for a year, if it lasts that long. Remember to label it so you know when you made it.
Don’t over boil it like I did the first time I tried to make it, I ended up with bramble vinegar flavoured toffee, it was not good but it did make my Gran laugh for about a week.
For your A class brambles, this is a lovely Mary Norwak cake recipe from the 1970’s, if you haven’t got time to do anything with your blackberries at the time of picking, you can always freeze them on a baking tray and when frozen bag them up for when you are ready to use them.
Mixing Bowl or free standing mixer, wooden spoon, measuring spoons, measuring jug, scales, another bowl for your crumble topping, little bowl for your egg, 20cm/8” loose bottomed round tin, baking paper and scissors.
4oz/100g caster sugar
8oz/225g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt if using unsalted butter, don’t put salt in if your butter is salted
¼ pint/150ml milk
8oz/225g blackberries (make sure they are well dried or you will have too much moisture in your cake batter and it will make it heavy)
4oz/100g caster sugar
2oz/50g plain flour
1/2tsp ground cinnamon
Grease and line a 8in/20cm loose bottomed round tin.
Preheat oven to 350f/180c/170c fan/gas mark 4
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy
Gradually add in the egg
Sieve together the flour, baking powder and salt
Fold into the creamed mixture with the milk
Put the mixture into the prepared tin
Sprinkle the blackberries on top
Make the topping by creaming together the butter, sugar; flour and cinnamon until the mixture is like coarse crumbs.
Sprinkle your crumble mixture on top of your blackberries
Bake for 1 hour keep an eye on it especially if you are using a fan oven.
Lift carefully out of the tin and cool
This cake can be served warm as a pudding with custard or cream or leave it to have cold as a cake.