Brambles: where, how and when to pick these seasonal fruits
Wild, free and plentiful brambles, which are a member of the rose family, are at their peak now, so here’s our guide on harvesting and eating them.
On Michaelmas (September 29), it’s said that the devil fell to earth, landing in a blackberry bush, so he spat on them. That’s a good mnemonic for the fact that brambles start to taste a bit bitter, thanks to the tannins, from that date onwards. Pick them now, when they’re just starting to turn black and ripen. Not too soon though. It’s always annoying to see people pick unripe ones, which are like bullets and, apparently, are mildly toxic.
There are so many places to find hardy brambles in Scotland, and not just in countryside woodland areas, as they also thrive in urban scrub. In Edinburgh, the Union Canal and Restalrig Path are good spots, and Glasgow has Queen’s Park. Every city has its own hotspots and if one of them is on your daily route, that puts you in prime position for harvesting when they turn purple-black, which seems to happen overnight. Be prepared and carry containers at all times.
They say you should only pick brambles above waist height, presumably to avoid the dog wee. We say you can go slightly lower than that, say up to a Great Dane’s hip. Also, they’re maybe not the best when picked from beside busy and polluted roads. Give them a very good wash, just in case. It’ll get rid of bugs too, though we say that a greenfly or two will just add additional protein. As far as foraging goes, brambles are probably the easiest to identify, since we don’t know of any toxic lookalikes, unlike various mushrooms in the fungi family. However, the rule always applies that, if you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it.
Once you’ve picked your berries, use them quickly, as the high water content means that they turn to a mush after about a day. Also, wear gloves if you don’t want purple paws, and don’t harvest them using a porous container that might stain (unless you don’t care).
As they’re an aggregate species, with hundreds of variants, that might mean that the fruits taste slightly different, depending on where you get them from.
It’s competitive out there, and seasoned foragers (as well as wildlife, such as foxes, badgers and birds) don't like it when people bag more than their fair share. Think about how many you’ll actually need and what you’ll be making with them. Will it be jam, cobbler, crumble, pavlova, vinegar, liqueurs, smoothies, or used as an accompaniment to duck or venison? In her book Scottish Baking, Sue Lawrence has a good recipe for Oaty Bramble Squares. However, as they have a high vitamin C, polyphenol and folic acid content, you could just pop them like health pills. Remember that whatever you decide to make might not be entirely vegetarian if you came in contact with any of a bramble’s gnarly thorns.