The joys of blackberrying

Like my occasional colleague on this page, Pat Whelan, I too have been blackberrying recently. I cannot think of a more pleasant way of spending a few carefree hours than harvesting the bumper crop of juicy berries that grow in the ditches of Kilmacomma and Sillaheens.

Like my occasional colleague on this page, Pat Whelan, I too have been blackberrying recently. I cannot think of a more pleasant way of spending a few carefree hours than harvesting the bumper crop of juicy berries that grow in the ditches of Kilmacomma and Sillaheens.

It is difficult to avoid purple propse in describing the scene: golden September sunshine; the fuchsias of County Waterford by-roads in full bloom; the birds singing; the air filled with the scent of mature grasses and wild flowers! Get it?

Nowadays, I really don’t have to be the gatherer in a duo of hunter-gatherers anymore. There are only two of us (elderly) in the house.

I don’t have to lay in stocks of food for a large family in anticipation of a harsh winter. But I am left with the compulsion to harvest the free food which grows in our countryside, because I can still hear my mother’s voice (she died more than half a century ago) saying, in Victorian language, that ‘wilful waste makes woeful want’.

And somehow that voice sings in chorus with that of Sister Margaret’s, the Sister of Charity nun who, many decades ago, taught us good plain cookery, when we were aged between 10 and 12 and in classes fourth to sixth.

Darina Allen, the distinguished cook, author and campaigner for Irish food, has said many times, how much she regrets the fact that cookery is no longer a compulsory subject in primary schools, as it was in my Morton Street school.

It is still an optional subject in our second-level schools as a module of a much more comprehensive study of domestic science.

But, I understand, that it is an option which is availed of by fewer and fewer students.

During a low point in our current austerity regime, I have frequently heard people who work in charitable organisations and some (opposition) politicians, complain that ‘children are going to school hungry’ and ‘they are coming home to only bread on the table’.

And I have found myself irrationally shouting at those complaining voices on the radio: ‘Do their mothers - or fathers - know how to make a pot of porridge, or a good vegetable soup, or a fish pie, or an Irish Stew, or even colcannon’ - all nourishing, healthy food.

In far more straitened times, the mothers of my generation had the skills not to allow their children go to school ‘hungry’.

And people like Sister Margaret reinforced those skills. She was a stickler for doing everything the ‘right way’.

There was a right way to slice an apple; to peel a potato, without taking chunks out of it with a blunt knife; the right way to control cooking temperatures (‘A stew boiled is a stew spoiled’) and above all, you cleaned up your own mess.

These were valuable lessons, imparted at a young age, and never forgotten.

And while it gladdens the hearts of us, older women, nowadays, to hear of the success which young girls are making in abstruse subjects like higher mathematics (abstruse to me who was never any good at sums!), does this cherished knowledge have to necessarily exclude some education in how to make a casserole.

Or, why does the lateral thinking, which is supposed to be a concomitant of the said higher mathematics, exclude the connection between gooey sugary drinks and the obesity about which the medical profession is constantly issuing warnings?

It seems to me that the favourite lunchtime tipple of a substantial number of the senior students whom I meet on the streeets at lunchtime everyday is the bottle of concentrated sugar.

Listening to those grim stories (as told by charitable organisations and opposition politicians) it does seem that there is a great dearth in the knowledge and skills of what used to be called ‘good plain cooking’, of the sort that economically and healthily nourished children.

Have we instead substituted that ordinary common-sensible practicality, with cooking as entertainment, as a television spectacle, even as a so-called art.

Gone are the stews, the casseroles, the simple soups, the uncomplicated home-made brown bread. Instead we are visually presented with such things as garam masala, sweet potatoes, Thai rice, scraps of root ginger, a teaspoonful of capers, a dash of flaked toasted almonds, and, of course, the half bottle of red wine.

All set in the background of the perfect kitchen and presented by somebody who will not have to do the wash-up.

And entertaining though it all is, it was good to escape to the hedges and ditches of my local hill country for the annual ritual of blackberrying. This is a very good year for the fruit, and in a short time I had gathered several pounds: enough to make an apple and blackberry tart for tea and several pots of jam and jelly. The remainder, a pound or two, I put into the freezer.

Sometime, in the forthcoming dark winter days, when it is raining cats and dogs, I will de-frost the berries and include them in a tart. As they cook in the oven, delicious smells will fill the kitchen: smells that will take me back to sunshine, to glorious views of the Knockmealdowns, to bees and butterflies and the soft warm breezes of a lovely September day.

Now, who would not go blackberrying just to experience those simple pleasures?