I’ve been experimenting with the Blackberry lately. Not the one that, if lost, causes lives to come to a halt. Not the one that would be picked over an only child in a shipwreck.
I’m talking instead about ripe blackberries that reflect the soft, Mediterranean light of late summer, blackberries that proliferate by the millions near railroad tracks, wild anise, wild lavender and cool ferns; blackberries that can cause serious addiction, not only to their exquisite taste and strangely compellingly seedy texture, but to their picking — an activity that soothes the heart, opens the mind, and produces a state of reverie not unlike that of any decent guru.
I began as a novice picker and emerged with wounds and gashes equal to those of a clash with an épée; honorable scars indeed, but I soon learned that long pants and a sun hat would speed my trip to Nirvana. A strong, plastic container in place of a flimsy plastic bag also kept my treasure from snagging on the nearest thorn and tumbling into the briars, and eliciting language that might disturb my journey.
My blackberry patches (note the possessive — I only share the universe up to a point) are fortunate to have been visited by local donkeys that have left their calling cards at the base of the plants. Manure ensures sweetness and decent-sized berries.
It’s especially important to taste samples from each and every briar. I’ve discovered that there’s no logic to blackberries and how they grow. Fat berries are not always sweet and shriveled berries bereft of sun are often like jam ready for breakfast toast.
This slow random search for the perfect bush creates a kind of trancelike state in the berry picker (we’re in a small village by the sea). Coming upon a bush sagging with fruit beside one covered in unripe, red wannabees gets at the essence of equality in nature: Some have it and some don’t. But there’s no survival of the sweetest!
The trance deepens. There is no hurry, no limit to the picking time, no demands except the lure of the briars. The only sound is a distant train whistle or the soft musical rushing of North African winds.
There are tenets for the art of berry picking. Pick with thumb and forefinger, twisting slightly so that the berry rolls off into your hand. Berries difficult to roll will detach along with their little caps, which must be cleaned and discarded later. If berries don’t roll off easily, they’re not yet quite ripe.
Blackberries are also by nature elusive and love to hide under thorny camouflage. A briar that doesn’t want you to disturb it just yet will leave a sticker in your thumb, letting you know that you should give it more time to ripen — “Come back another day,” it seems to say.
If you are smarter than I, you’ll also discover that a good pair of boots will take you to unexplored caches of riches. Even on days when bushes appear picked out, the deep foraging that boots allow lead you to new families of fat berries that seem somehow metamorphosed overnight into prime produce.
And so ends the summer. A blackberry patch may offer even more relaxation than the study of eastern religions or the endorphins of exercise. Remember, too, that at the end of this particular search for self, you’ll also get a lovely big bowl of perfect berries awaiting cream and sugar or tarts — or, in my case, just a spoon.
BLACKBERRY ICE CREAM
— Freeze 2 cups of blackberries with 3/4 cup sugar, a dash of vanilla, and a squeeze of lemon.
— Remove from freezer just before beginning ice cream.
— Whip 2 cups whipping cream in a food processor and add frozen berries. — Blend just until firm and serve immediately.