It took a few weeks for this blog post about blackberries to ripen. Like an anxious berry-picker, I worried I had only a short season to work with. When you’re starting a blog partially about quitting your job and moving to London to live, write, and eat, you need to record the experiences when they’re fresh. But try to take down ideas when they’re still pink, and the piece will be flavorless. So I waited, like I waited for the blackberries.
I first saw them in Buckinghamshire on the afternoon of my arrival, one of those rare golden summer days in rural England when you walk around dumbstruck and desperate to carpe every sunny second. Three of us – Derrick, a family friend; his 8-year-old granddaughter Jessica, who has wandered out of a fairytale but doesn’t know it yet; and jet-lagged me – were on a walk through a keyhole-shaped trail in the woods behind Derrick’s back yard.
He popped down a side path to “check on the blackberries.” They weren’t ready yet. But something about the idea of wild food grabbed me. It has a sense of place. If I tasted it, I imagined, it would be like tasting Buckinghamshire. I had my eye on them ever since, waiting for the fleeting weeks when they’re plump and sweet and shiny-black as an inkpot.
So when I spot them on a guided walk in Hampstead Heath, an 800-acre wild-ish park in London, I plan to sneak back with a tupperware. That’s one of the perks of foraging: It feels slightly contraband. One of the downsides is that it can be painful and/or deadly. I assume when I start the only hazards will be hornets and the thorny thickets barbing in the choicest berries. I don’t figure on the stinging nettle, which injects a cocktail of poison and histamines into my hand that stab me like a hundred needles all day. I am told later that if you brush against it, you must look for a large-leafed dock plant growing beneath the nettles and rub it on the welty area. (I imagine the dock as the Peter Pettigrew of plants – a good-at-heart, pear-shaped guy always hanging out at the feet of the baddie but ready to make a self-sacrifice at the moment of crisis.) But it’s just pain, a learning experience, and a necessary risk if you want food with a sense of place.
I have been looking for a sense of place for myself, too. I have always felt it might be here, in England, but I’m not sure if it’s in the real England or the England of my imagination. I wander back through Hampstead, asking myself variations on the question “What am I looking for here?”. I suspect that, like in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I’m searching less for an answer to life, the universe and everything than for a question. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is unraveling in my head as I stroll the streets that lead me to an overwhelming question. “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ Let us go and make our visit.”
I visit a tiny cemetery, graves so worn from wind and rain I can barely decipher the text. I am struck by the ubiquity of one word: love. “Loving mother.” “Beloved husband.” “Mark me down as one who loved his fellow men.” None of the gravestones say anything about being well-traveled or well-educated or wealthy (although admittedly there’s not much room for verbosity on these things). They are all about being loved.
Blackberries sprout up around some of the graves. I eat one to taste a sense of place, to get a taste of death. It is slightly sour.
I take the Hampstead Heath blackberries home and mash them into my morning yogurt, focusing on the flavor – sweet-sour and vaguely redolent of violet. I am hoping to taste some sense of place, but as usual reality doesn’t cater to the poetic imaginings of writers. They’re certainly juicier and more flavorful than store-bought blackberries, and when I eat them, I can imagine the Heath, and the act of picking the fruit, and even the nettle attack. It gives the food a layer of imagination – a backstory instead of the blank behind grocery store food.
Back in Marlow, a neighbor has given Derrick and his wife, Joan, some windfall apples – small and green, with Morgan Freeman freckles. Derrick has a hankering for blackberry-apple pie. We walk from the hamlet of Skimmet toward the hamlet of Hambleden through farmers’ fields on a grey, chill morning (those summer days from three weeks ago are long gone). Pheasants and partridges proliferate, but blackberries are scarce. So we drive along a hedge-lined, cartpath-wide lane, and just as the sky erupts with rain, Derrick stops and jumps out of the car, returning redhanded and brimming with pride over his tupperware full of the plumpest, glossiest, inkiest blackberries ever unofficially documented.
I chop the apples, and Joan mixes the fruits in a dish with sugar, then drapes it with a thick homemade pastry only on top, so it stays flaky. “You’d lose the plot if you put it on the bottom,” she says. Joan is so sweet and kind it could be easy to overlook that she is also widely knowledgable, curious, and delightfully impish. She is also legendary for her sticky toffee pudding and jams. When Derrick was flying constantly between England and the U.S. for work, he became known for the pot-of-jam upgrade.
It probably began innocently enough: He was taking jams to his son in California, he happened to get an upgrade, here’s a pot of jam. So he began regularly giving jam to airline staff. Not necessarily expecting special treatment and not always getting it, just establishing himself as a rare traveler who treated staff like they were human, who knew whether they preferred raspberry or redcurrant. VIP lounge access, escorts to the next terminal, business-class upgrades – all for little jars of stewed strawberries. Clearly, if he were giving out store-bought jam, it wouldn’t have worked. Which is not because of the jams’ sense of place or even because they taste better than Smuckers. It’s because those little glass jars with their handwritten labels speak of time spent in the kitchen, of caring, of love. They come with a deeper layer of emotion. They come with a story.
Joan spatulas a magenta heap of apple-blackberry pie into my bowl, and I spoon freshly whipped cream on the side. I marvel at the sturdy flakiness of the crust and the tangy alchemy that’s unlike either apples or blackberries but a mysterious other the two have created together. Does it taste like Buckinghamshire? No, because it overwhelmingly tastes like... or imagines like – the two are beginning to blend like pie fruits and create something new... it overwhelmingly tastes like homeyness and love. And I suspect that somewhere in this lies an answer, or a question, and it has to do with searching for a sense of people instead of a sense of place, or a feeling instead of a location, or the meaning behind words on gravestones. But I can’t quite get to that layer yet. I need another helping.