On a long walk miles from our home in Brittany, my wife Rohan saw some ripe blackberries. It was in the last week of July so they had no right to have ripened, indeed the berries around our house were still as they should be – small and green with their drupelets (their surface ‘bobbles’) tightly packed. But of course, bushes vary and luckily a week later, when I had a desperate need for a mouthful, ripe berries had appeared nearer home.
My requirement for berries could not have been predicted. Rohan, who this time was going to a rescheduled morning Russian lesson – I learn French; she, Russian – dropped me in the neighbouring town to buy our daily newspaper and some bread. All going well, I would stop for a coffee and ‘canard’ – a lump of sugar dipped in the coffee and eaten as is – and then wander home.
I was looking forward enormously to walking along one of my favourite routes; a centuries-old, partially overgrown track with some stretches that are bordered by high hedgerows, some that run through open fields and some with branches overhead that form a green tunnel.
As it turned out, it was a drizzly, muggy morning and the cafe was yet to open. With the first part of my plan scuppered, I set off for home with the bread and newspaper safe in my backpack but with no coffee to match. Soon I began to feel faint. Such a feeling is not new to me and, as always in such circumstances, I simply walked faster – to ‘walk it off’. However, this time the symptoms persisted.
That morning I had eaten a hurried and miserly breakfast – two small tomatoes on dry toast – and with no follow-up canard, I was beginning to suffer the consequences of a low blood sugar level. Well, that was my diagnosis. Home was almost three miles away – about fifty minutes – and I pondered over the alternatives. Should I sit down and wait for my sugar level to recover, or walk along the road and hitch a lift home, or knock on a door en route and ask for a sugar lump. If my blood-sugar levels were really low, taking some sugar was the answer.
In the end I did none of these – I had a plan. There would be countless blackberry bushes growing in the hedgerows on my walk and, although it was still early in the season, based on Rohan’s observation some berries had to be ripe. I calculated that eating around a hundred ripe berries, with their contents containing the equivalent of two small lumps of sugar, would do the trick. However, just as the hunt began, so too occurred a series of questions about the rights, wrongs and dangers of fruit picking, some of which first arose in my childhood.
Like any other school-child, I went scrumping. We were after apples and those on trees in an orchard or garden were legitimate quarry. We ‘stole’ our handful with impunity. And so Rule One: although scrumping is wrong, in the countryside it is somehow acceptable.
While entering someone’s property raised questions, apples, or indeed any fruit that we could reach from a ‘public’ path or pavement, was ours by right. Rule Two: readily accessible fruit is public property.
Rule Three: if it is small fruit – straw berries, raspberries etc that is growing in someone’s garden, picking them is completely wrong.
Taking these three childhood rules together, my picking blackberries from a hedgerow would be acceptable, but there were now three new – modern – rules that also needed to be met. First, don’t pick blackberries growing on a busy roadside; the exhaust fumes that land on their leaves and buds will be toxic. Second, don’t pick blackberries that have grown next to treated fields; pesticides and herbicides are likely to have entered the growing fruit. Third, avoid low-lying fruit as it might be contaminated by sprays from passing foxes. As I saw it, since the hedgerows were at least two metres thick and, anyway I would be picking on the far side from the field, since motorised vehicles rarely if ever go down the lane, and since I would only pick from the higher branches, there should be no risk.
After such a reassuring analysis, my search began. Despite the large number of bushes, ripe berries were rare; certainly none were found along my first few hundred metres so while still in the green tunnel. Further along I found some berries but in their ones and twos. Only later were there clusters. After twenty minutes I had found around eighty, not as many as I wanted but it had to do. As I ate them, my feelings of faintness gradually lifted.
Without global warming and the berries’ unseasonal early ripening it could all have been very different!
The illustration is a photograph of some blackberries growing along the walk. Of those shown just one is fully ripe and sugary.
For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Rohan and Vivien