B is for berry. At this time of year the hedgerows and verges begin to be jewelled with shiny blackberries, swollen and delicious. They stand out against their green foliage like dark amethysts against velvet. Berries are the most tempting of fruit to harvest: inherently satisfying in their abundance, they are almost impossible not to scoff. After a picking expedition, fingers come back stained dark with juice. In fact, berries have been used for millennia as a dye. But if you can bring in enough, they also make the most fabulous jams. Blackberry jam – often overlooked – is the superior of all confitures. With jam sugar it takes all of five minutes to make. All you have to do is boil and bottle. It has a depth and sharpness that is the perfect foil to the simple richness of a cream tea.
Women’s eyes are thought to be particularly attuned to colours on the red-purple spectrum because of countless millennia of berry picking. While men spot flickering objects in the middle distance – an antelope darting across the tundra – women are specialists in seeing a patch of berries. Not for nothing, then, is pink traditional for girls. This hunter-gatherer instinct may not bring in the big hitters of protein and furs, but it is quiet, sustainable, companionable. It is because of hours spent foraging for nuts and berries that women are so comfortable chatting in groups. And unlike an animal, fruit is easy to share, creating a society among women of mutual help and consideration.
Berries are also at the forefront of the modern healthy eating movement. Goji berries and blueberries are both considered to be superfoods: you’ll find them scattered into granola at all the worthiest health food cafes. Despite being sweet, they slow down blood sugar spikes in the body, reducing the risk of metabolic disease. They also have high levels of antioxidants. This is perhaps ironic given their traditional place in the British cuisine, which is firmly in the sugary category. Berries are centre-stage in not only jams but also summer pudding and Eton Mess in all their saccharine old-fashioned glory.
Of all berries, strawberries are the most popular. Twice as many strawberries are grown commercially than all other berries combined. Alas, this means that most of us only ever eat supermarket strawberries, which may be perfect in shape and lustrous in colour but are bland and watery in flavour. Wild strawberries are a totally different fruit: both sweeter and muskier, and tiny. They blush becomingly under their leaves, meaning they have often been associated with modesty and reticence. In the Victorian language of flowers, strawberry blossom signified humility and meekness. For a more mischievous take, Tiptree offer a ‘Little Scarlet Strawberry’ gin liqueur.
Now there’s a new generation of cool berries in town. Lingonberries, dewberries, thimbleberries and cloudberries are sprouting in Nordic cafes and recipe books. Another fashionable import from Scandinavia. These mostly grow in the wild – thus far – so have a hipster authenticity. They also have a Moomin-esque quality with their silly names and unfamiliarity. Who knows, maybe Waitrose will soon start stocking loganberry preserve. Until then, give me glorious autumn afternoons of berry picking any day. One note of caution: a profusion of berries is traditionally a signifier of a harsh winter ahead. Given the plethora of blackberries in the hedges, it may be time to start dusting down your cashmere.
For more entries from the Dictionary of Food, click here.