Bramble jelly is the most gorgeous thing made from foraged produce. Go raid the hedges!
This must be the ultimate dream recipe: only two ingredients. It’s so easy it practically makes itself. And the main ingredient is FREE.
What are brambles?
Brambles, or wild blackberries, start in late August and continue into October, weather and fellow foragers allowing. They peek through hedges, line fields and meadows, spring up along the woodland paths and by the side of the roads.
Thorny enough not to be messed with – they will grab at your clothes and hair with the power of original barbed wire. Foragers: don gloves.
As most wild fruit, compared to their cultivated counterparts, brambles are tangier, harsher and less sweet than blackberries. They also have quite a hard core that the berry is hard to pull off, unlike in raspberries and farmed blackberries.
The sweetest brambles are the ones eaten straight off the plants, with fingers pricked with thorns and stained with the juice, when only one in four lands in the collecting tub.
But that’s what pick your own is all about, and brambles are the ultimate ‘pick-your-own’ – there is no checkout at the end of the picking…
Foraging seems daunting to an average townie. You have to know where to go and when to go there! You have to recognise what’s edible and what’s poison! And then how to prepare and use your crop! And there’s no use-by date on it!
I agree that picking wild mushrooms (scarce and camouflaged) requires substantial knowledge, though I’m saying it with the sense of superiority, having grown up in a family of seasoned mushroom foragers in Poland.
Likewise wild garlic: it masquerades as lily-of-the-valley and its season lasts all of about five minutes.
And I don’t know much about sloe berries or elderflower - trees are generally intimidating.
So bramble picking would be the nicest and the most rewarding type of foraging since they are plentiful and in plain view. It would – if it wasn’t for the pips.
.. but for the pips!
Even if you aren’t the spoilt type who goes for seedless raspberry in the jam aisle, brambles are REALLY pippy. I grudgingly go for cultivated blackberries in cakes – rich flavour, palatable pips.
For jamming though, shop bought fruit is usually too expensive even if you want to make just a couple of jars. And thus brambles are the supreme jamming material that comes for free, by way of an enjoyable afternoon of picking.
Why bramble jelly, not bramble jam?
Making jelly is quite similar to making jam except it works particularly well with pippy fruit (brambles!). The jelly my recipe is for is basically seedless jam, rather than jellied fruit juice.
Adding gelatine to fruit juice is just WRONG, after all that organic effort of picking. Pectin is the natural gelatine, occurring freely in fruit and thus giving jams and jellies the setting quality.
For jelly-making, I thought you couldn’t get away without one of those scary wasp nest-like contraptions suspended half a mile above a collecting jar, but you can easily make do with a colander and muslin cloth.
Brambles should be washed before processing, especially if grown near roads, to get rid of dust and pollution. If you collected them in the heart of the countryside and managed to avoid little insects living on them, you can skip the washing. Add a splash of water to the cooking in that case.
They need to soften, without any sugar initially, for about twenty minutes at a simmer. And then the fun starts.
Drip, drip, drip goes the bramble jelly
A colander or a large sieve, set over a large pan with enough clearance for juice to drip freely, lined with a double layer of muslin cloth – that’s all that’s needed.
It should be organic drip overnight, no squeezing of the bag for maximum extraction, for perfectly clear jelly.
But if, like me, you are a/ far too greedy for that and b/ aim at jam-like pulpy consistency, give the muslin a good old squeeze before discarding the pulp the next morning. Anyway, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says it’s okay to squeeze.
When is jam or jelly set?
The collected juice cooks with sugar like ordinary jam, using 750g jam sugar for every litre of the juice.
How to recognise when to jar the jelly? Tediously, with a jam thermometer. When it reaches 105C / 221F, it’s ready to decant. Note: it takes absolutely forever to go from about 102C to 105C, so don’t think ‘it’s almost there!’ and turn it off at that point – it will be too runny. Unless you like runny.
The other method is the frozen plate trick: drop a blob of the jelly onto a plate that has been kept in the freezer while jelly cooks. Wait a moment and prod it: if it looks like jelly and feels like jelly, and most importantly tastes like jelly, it’s done.
Let it rest about ten minutes before transferring into sterilised jars. It will mature in flavour and set a tiny bit more over a few days, if you can be so patient.