ANY day now in the wild berry-rich back lanes of rural Ayrshire you will find Archie Reid doing something he has done every September for 65 years: reaching out through the thorns to pluck brambles.
“I’ve done it since I was a kid,” says Reid. “I love brambles and bramble jelly. It has a taste all of its own.”
This is early September, which means the bramble-picking season is still in its infancy, but already the country lanes of Scotland are bunching up with the juicy, luscious, edible berry. Reid and his kind have their plastic bowls ready, their boots to hand, and maybe a crooked stick to haul down “the high yins” where the bramble, bulging up there through exposure to sun and rain, is ripened and ready for snatching. “I’ve known days when, if you know where to look, you can fill a gallon-pail with the fruit,” says Reid.
The hedgerows are already in bud: some brambles are ready, others need another week or two. The end of September is widely viewed as the prime time for picking – when the bushes are at their most heavenly with the fat, fleshy bramble – yet even this weekend there is still an early, ready harvest. The mouth waters just thinking about the next three weeks.
All over Britain there are prime spots for brambles, and Scotland boasts some of the best. Around the country roads of Ayrshire, Perthshire, Fife and the Borders you’ll find wild brambles that are dripping off their vines and fit to be served up to kings. In the past few days I’ve seen the berries sprouting so voluptuously that you just want to stop the car, jump out and have an on-the-spot feast.
Reid, 75, and has lived within a third of a mile radius near Dunlop in Ayrshire all his days. The son of a farmer, and with country ways steeped in his veins, he relishes the bramble season because, first, it is an annual rite of passage, and second, because it means he can make his mouth-watering bramble jelly.
“When I was a wee lad my father and mother knew all the places to get brambles around here,” Reid tells me. “We were on the farm and you’d either eat the fruit off the bush as a snack on your way to school, or my mother would store up the brambles to make her bramble jelly.
“On the farm there was my mother, father, me, my brother and sister, plus a maid and a few farm workers – this was in the 1940s – and my mother had to cook for all of us. She used to say, ‘I need 365 pounds of jam a year’ for all the jelly we would get through.
“She cooked all sorts, but just about every day we’d have a jam piece or a jam scone, and that’s when the brambles came into their own. My father had this stick where he’d howk down the high yins – they were the best, the big, juicy ones.”
Talking to Reid I get the sense of an authentic man living an authentic life. “I grew up in a place where home baking and home produce was the norm,” he says. “We had all fruits: gooseberries, rasps, strawberries, redcurrants, plums, rhubarb, damsons, everything. Every day cakes or scones were baked, but the berry season was the best.”
On brambles Reid is lucidly clear. “They have a marvellous taste,” he says. “And bramble jelly has a flavour all of its own. The real, true jelly has a bright, reddy colour and it should be as clear as ice. It is gorgeous.”
Out into the nearby lanes we step, where I hav enjoyed an hour of brambling just the day before, and there they are, bunching thicker and thicker. There are many knacks to picking brambles, and one of them is to climb the stile and pick “from the field side” where the fruit is unseen and quite often the best – but beware of the bull.
Alas, the best brambles are often where the bush is at its prickliest or thorniest. The true bramble-picker will tell you that, after a couple of hours of rewarding picking, the hands and arms can be covered in scratches from foraging away for the most prized fruit.
In Canada, and even in some places in Scotland, scientists have contrived something of a bramble blasphemy: a vine without any thorns at all. It is also a later fruit, becoming ripe in mid-October, and said to be very good. But we needn’t dwell long on this grotesque parody of nature. Brambles are brambles: they are there to be picked and savoured, the purple juice running down your face. But they should come at a prickly price.
Out in the lanes, we meet Alison, a mother of three children. She says she makes an oaty bramble bake with them, piling the oats and brown sugar on top of the fruit in a bowl and sticking it in a hot oven for 25 minutes.
Other locals around here use the brambles for crumbles, cakes, to have with porridge, for oaty pies or compotes, plus, of course, for jams or jelly.
It can be bloody, messy work. After two hours of foraging and picking last week I had quite a few cuts and scratches, a fruit-smeared face, plus blotches on my shirt and trousers where the juicy stains from the brambles left their imprint. You certainly don’t go out brambling in your Sunday best. Then again, if you live in the country, as I do, you tend to “dress down” sometimes to a shambolic, even eccentric degree.
Then there’s the competition to deal with. Sure enough, as Reid and I walk the country lane, picking away, who should we meet but a rival brambler, preying on the same fertile stretch of hedgerow, except she is “on the field side” and filling her bowl with gorgeous fruit. The more I take stock of this scene the more I realise there is a certain tactical element to brambling. It’s not as if you are trying to outwit your opponent – heaven knows there is plenty for everyone – but there are prime spots to know about.
It is said that bramble-picking is on the decline in Britain, what with the urban sprawl and a seemingly less rural way of life. That may be so, though in Ayrshire and elsewhere, picking the wild fruit is still a custom, and it makes perfect sense.
For instance, in our local supermarket, a carton of blackberries, which is hardly bulging, costs £2. Yet out in the lanes you can pick 10 times as much for free, and in the knowledge that the berry is completely unadulterated. It is a form of organic fruit growing for everyone.
Being a bramble convert these days, and hearing him haver about its delights, I ask Reid for the definitive way to make a bramble jelly.
“It’s not that difficult,” he says. “You take your fruit and boil it in water and then put it in a jam-bag to let the juice drip. I use a broom-handle and hang the bag between two chairs, but you can do it any way. Leave the bag dripping away until you collect all the juice.
“For goodness sakes don’t squeeze the bag. I did that once and it makes the jelly go all dark and cloudy. Bramble jelly should be bright and clear. You then add a pound of sugar to every pint of juice and boil it for about 10 minutes. You then take a sample on a cold dish – if it wrinkles then it means it will set.”
All over Scotland in two or three weeks’ time there will be bramble jellies stored in jars and ready to see us through the winter. That is the far-sighted strategy of the bramble-picker. The here-and-now way, which I think is every bit as agreeable, is to bake the fruit into to-die-for puddings and scoff the lot before September is out, abetted by lavish helpings of ice-cream.
I find bramble-picking to be an amazingly satisfying pastime. First, you are out in the fresh air. Second, you have a lovely sense of going back in time, to an innocent age, picking the fruit by the side of the road. Third, there is even almost a spiritual aspect to it: you engage with nature, often in peace and quiet, plucking the fruit from the vine.
As you pick away a deep-rooted, nagging feeling tells you this is how life is meant to be. «