Wednesday 2 August 2017

Blackberry liqueur recipe

I always think of blackberries as food for free. I can't imagine ever buying a punnet of blackberries, even though I have seen prize specimens on sale in Sainsburys and Waitrose. Sourced from Spain, or even Mexico. Blackberries don't come from Mexico, they come from a hedge.

Even in London, we have hedges groaning with blackberries right now. Bramble bushes can grow just about anyway, from building sites, to woods and heathland, to coastal areas. The plants are exceptionally vigorous and will take over any patch of ground if not kept in check. They also appear - wherever I grow them anyway - to have some kind of bromance going with the stinging nettle: wherever I have a blackberry plant, I can be sure there'll be a patch of nettles growing up right through the middle of them. You can attempt to cultivate blackberries and train them on wires and horizontal posts, but they tend to outgrow these in a single season.

If you don't have a wild blackberry patch that will respond well to a bit of mulching and pruning, you can buy young plants to cultivate. Many of the modern cultivars are thornless, or virtually so, which makes things much more comfortable when you come to pick the fruit.

We have a patch of feral blackberries which are cut back rigorously each winter. Not too ruthlessly, though, as blackberries fruit on last year's wood: if you cut back the lot, you'll get a lot of long thorny, whip-like stems, but no fruit, until the second year after cutting. But you should cut back the branches that have borne fruit - their work is done and they won't produce on the same branch again.

Most years I take the reliably good blackberry crop for granted: snacking on a few here and there, filling the odd punnet or two for a blackberry-dominated version of an Eton mess, or - a family favourite here - blackberry meringue pie.

This year, however, seems to have been a particularly good one for all kinds of blackberries, whether cultivated or wild: large tasty fruits and plenty of them. I love the mellow warm note to the flavour that comes after the initial raspberry-like hit - a little autumnal hint in among all that summer zinginess.

So bountiful is the harvest this year that it seemed a shame to leave any behind. At some stage while picking through the colanderful of blackberries at the kitchen sink I decided they would make a wonderfully flavoured liqueur. I have often used up the blackcurrant crop to make a homespun version of crème de cassis, and thought the same basic method would work just as well for crème de mûre.

Blackberry liqueur (Crème de mûre)
This recipe involves steeping the blackberries in vodka letting the flavour slowly infuse and enrich the spirit and takes about six months to mature.

However I did also try a quicker infusion, from Country Living magazine. Here you make a blackberry syrup from the fruit, sugar and little lemon juice, strain it through muslin and then add it to vodka or eau-de-vie. I made one batch and after a week, it has very slightly jellied -  and while there's not really much wrong with the notion of blackberry vodka jelly, it's not quite the effect I was after.

900g freshly picked blackberries
250g sugar
600ml vodka

Wide-necked jar to hold around 1.2 litres, sterilised (can be washed in very hot water, or put through a dishwasher cycle. Dry off in the oven at 120 degrees)

Pick over the blackberries and discard bits of stalk, leaf, etc. Give them a quick rinse in a colander and drain.

When dry, pile into the jar, adding sugar as you go so that you end up with the jar almost full of loosely packed blackberries layered with the sugar.

Pour the vodka in slowly to fill the jar - you may not need to use all of it. Seal, and shake the jar upside down briefly to start dissolving the sugar. Store (right way up) in a cool dark space, giving the jar the upside-down-shake treatment occasionally so that the sugar dissolves and the flavours blend. After a week, strain through muslin into a sterilised bottle or Kilner-style jar, then leave for six months (ie, it will be ready for Christmas) before drinking.

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