Thursday, August 22, 2019

Of Blackberries, Beans and Bugs

I am currently nursing a great number of wounds. They itch and sting, little beadings of blood frilling the edges. Washing up becomes a game of chicken: how long can you hold your injured hands in the hot soapy water? Sock elastic irritates and chafes them. 

It is blackberry season after all. 

The path along the canal and the allotment site are full of brambles that, right now, and for a limited period only, are bearing possibly the ultimate in seasonal foods: blackberries. And I allow no nettle, stinger or sneaking creeping branch to stand between me and a good crumble. Hands and ankles are sacrificed to the cause as I strip all the ones I can reach free from the bushes; a good number of clothes too. However, my blackberrying limits are reached once the leopard-spotted spiders start to weave webs and take up residence on the bushes. My raging (and totally rational, thank you very much) arachnaphobia prevents further picking.

I don't know what this plant is! And they are all over the site. If anyone does, let me know.

But it's all worth it when you make a crumble so awesome, it renders all other Sunday activities futile (the secret is extra oats and ground almonds in the topping). 

Once stripped, the brambles on the allotment are being mercilessly cut back as they are threatening to strangle everything within reach, including the autumn raspberries that have appeared at the top of the allotment. Some of the blackberry branches are thicker than my index and middle fingers together: the original secateurs gave up the ghost, so I had to return with new ones so sharp they cut the air. There is now a heap of drying, dying branches waiting for right amount of autumn for a bonfire. 

There is an small amount of it now I realised the other day, as the 16th Century building I work in takes on it's end of summer briskness that's enough to warrant an extra layer. As I cycle through the park, there is a chill around the edges that raises goosebumps and catches the fingers. Not enough yet to make your breath mist in front of you, but you can smell it just round the corner. This is fine with me as I love autumn. Actually I only know of one person who doesn't: she hates what it signifies, the drawing in of the nights, the months of winter, the gloomy light. This is possibly because she lives in a small town, a glorified village really, where the street lights are few and the social gatherings limited. 

Autumn makes me think I could live in the countryside again. And then I remember. For country dwellers, the Great Muddening draws nigh. That time of year where you can't move without it sticking to your boots, or the paws of your pets. You find it everywhere and for the next 4 months, the mop is rarely dry as you try to fight the rising tide of it. Having been the owner of a long-haired Alsatian-cross, I would find it drifted across the floor, almost like tidal-sand-patterns but gritty and in my kitchen. 

For now, late summer sees the allotments running wild with weeds gone rogue (the photo above of the site next door, the tenant of which rotovated the plot in April and then left it - the weeds are nearly as tall as his shed and seeding all over the place. Rotovating merely creates more weeds, I've decided.), plants gone off-piste and insects galore. Our site is full of crickets chirping like mad, chorusing through the days, and the oregano is bustling with bees and butterflies galore, making whoopee while the sun shines.

Of course, these days always feel like the last time to make the most of summer produce, rushing to grab what I can find. Tiny courgettes are in the market; the last of the summer fruits; runner beans and tomatoes still on their vines, smelling like my paternal Grandad's greenhouse. 

Now there was a man of infinite patience and a desire to stay out of the way of his termagent wife. She could rule the house with an iron fist, and she did - the tiny bungalow was her territory - but the garden and the greenhouse was his. I cannot smell tomatoes without remembering him. And I cannot look at runner beans without thinking the same. His patience extended to slowly removing the stringy edges, then painstakingly slicing, with his old wooden-handled knife, the beans into matchstick thin pieces, equal in length and thickness, one eye on whatever race meet was showing on the telly. 

A rear-gunner in WWII, shot down over Italy and left permanently deaf from the roar of the plane engines and gunfire, he dwelt mostly in his own little world of silence. Returning from war an atheist, he became an engineer, had a realistic and uncompromising view of his own worth as a human and helped raise 3 children, teaching his youngest to overcome his stammer with endless calm. Followed the horses, supported Arsenal, accepted the never-altered weekly dinner (served at lunchtime) menu without complaint. 

I can never manage to get my beans as fine as he did and my knife is plastic-handled but every time I slice them, I'm 6 again, colouring in and chatting aimlessly, listening to the horses race on the radio, in his companionable silence.


  1. I havent picked blackberries for a while, may do in the next few days as we are going on holiday and travelling around the West coast of Wales and i am sure, opps to forage will present itself.

    1. Wales is gorgeous, and foraging always a treat. Enjoy!


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