Blackberry season is upon us finally here on the west coast of Canada. After a long winter, late spring, and cool wet seasons, summer arrived in Vancouver. Late. Very late.
I make blackberry jelly every year because . . . well because the berries are plentiful and free, frankly, and because they are delicious. There is nothing like cracking open a beautiful jar of homemade blackberry jelly in the depths of winter and letting the sunrise of that mid-summer flavour attack your palate.
I devoted my Labour Day long weekend to All Things Blackberry, choosing berries from bushes that ring an open park on the edge of the UBC Endowment Lands. A little cluster of homes informally known as 'Little Australia' (because all the streets are named after regions of that country) borders the City of Vancouver and the University of British Columbia. At the meadow here, once a year locals carrying pots, baskets, sieves or just plastic bags wade through the bramble for berries.
Usually I stick to the sunny side of the meadow but this year I found some really fine berries on the shady side as well. In the end I used half sunshine-berries (fat, ripe, full of sugar) and half shade-berries (leaner, ripe, more tart meaning containing more pectin).
I come equipped with my garden pruners to get the 'suckers', the branches with no berries but the sharpest, largest thorns, out of the way. Proceeding inside the blackberry bush I stomp down extraneous bramble to make a path until I locate bunches of ripe, sweet berries hiding in the protection of spiky thorns.
FRESH BLACKBERRIES, WASHED enough to fill my 10 litre pot!
BLACKBERRY BUSH SCRATCHES usually it isn't this bad. I fell right through the bramble, once you're hurt you may as well just keep going, right!?
Yeah I actually fell right through my precarious perch at one point, scratching my leg up good right to the thigh. Its not even the falling in that's the worst, its the getting out. Because the blackberry thorns are shaped like fish hooks; they get you more going out than coming in. Once I was hurt I figured, 'What the hell? May as well throw all caution to the wind.'
Its been such a weird season, starting out cool and wet then getting quite dry but not hot, I was worried whatever blackberries did materialize would be dried out little pathetic morsels. This was true in a lot of cases, especially under cover of trees. But a LOT of the high-hanging berries were absolutely gorgeous! It was in straining and reaching for these best-of-the-best that I got mangled. Usually I don't have to reach so far for berries so good.
third time BLACKBERRY STRAINING, through moistened cheescloth
I've tried different ways to speed up the straining process, you pretty much have to resign yourself to three days of effort (one day picking, one day cooking down and straining, one day actually making jelly) and to splashes of blackberry in the most remote corners of your kitchen.
I used to put the berries through a blender, let the seeds settle, then set up two strainers; one coarse, one fine. It doesn't matter which way you do it, it still takes a long time to separate the juice from the pulp. Just get the straining going and go outside to rub antiseptic on your arms and legs, hah.
BLACKBERRIES STRAINED pure juice in white pot at left, remnant pulp at right
Now things start to get interesting! That glistening pure black juice, still tart but a good indication of your final product, is destined to boil off for a few hours.
But jelly cannot be made of berries alone. There needs to be a stabilizer. A lot of people use pectin but I don't like that because you have to add more sugar and I like it as low-sugar as my tastebuds can tolerate. Pure blackberry all the way, baby!
If my quince tree gives me any fruit, which it seems to do every two years, then I use those. Otherwise I used the as unripe apples as I can find.
UNRIPE APPLES AS PECTIN at left while blackberry juice reduces at right
There's a house on the UBC lands with untended apple trees on the edge of the lot by the road. Every year there's a huge pile of apples on the ground, going to waste. If I don't have any quince, or not enough, I use these apples. I only take a few -- there's like five or six trees -- and I use everything I take. One year there were people sitting by the pool which quite surprised me because there's never anyone at this house. I called over the wee hill separating the house from the road, "Do you mind if I take a few of your apples??"
"NO!" the mean old man yelled meanly in a mean voice. "Don't steal my apples!"
OK guy don't freak out, you're obviously not using them so what's the problem here?? I left on my bike and came back after dark.
This year there was nobody around but there was a car in the driveway so I scrambled up the little hill as quietly and quickly as I could, grabbed a bunch of green apples and got the hell out of there. Again there was a large pile of rotting apples on the ground. I'll admit I took some ripe red apples as well. They were warm to my touch with the late afternoon sun from the west beaming down on them and they smelled FANTASTIC.
I might go back next week, we'll see. If those apples are just going to go to waste because some old guy doesn't want to share then I might just help myself again. If they're being harvested I'll leave it alone.
APPLES STRAINED AND COOKING
The trick to getting the pectin to work using this method is to cook down the apples, or quince, FIRST. Don't add the apples to the blackberry juice and think it will jell.
And yes, you have to strain the apples as well of course, not just the blackberries.
meanwhile STERILIZE JARS
Place clean Mason jars and lids in the sink. Pour rapidly boiling water to the top of each jar (I like to see the water pouring over the top so I know both the inside and outside of the top of the jar is sterilized) and the lids. If you run out of water don't partly fill a jar then fill it later with more boiling water. It has to be fully boiling water to the very top of each jar.
Let sit for one minute.
Not touching the top of the jars or lids, use something heat-resistant to grab the jars from the bottom and pour out the water. Place on counter somewhere safe where nothing will come in contact with the jar openings or the lids until you put the hot jelly inside. It doesn't matter if the jars cool down, just make sure nothing touches the tops in the meantime.
STRAIN COMBINED APPLES AND BLACKBERRIES one more time because the whole process isn't enough of a pain in the butt
Yeah I had to strain the combine apples and blackberries one more time. That's five times straining in total for anyone whose counting. These apples I should have peeled I realized later.
BLACKBERRY JELLY sealed up tight in jars for a dark winter day's treat
When pouring or spooning the jelly mixture into your jars be sure to not let any drip on the top of the opening or it will interfere with the seal. This may allow bacteria to grow that you can't smell or taste and can make you really sick or die.
I had gotten into the beer by this point (well, after like four straight hours of dicking around with this what do you think is going to happen!!) so my aim wasn't so good and I actually did get some drips on the jar tops. Very quickly boil more water and pour small amounts just to wash the lid area off. Make sure there is no material on any of the threads of the jar.
Enough blackberries to fill a 10 litre pot came out to about 4 litres cooked down and strained, combined with a bunch of apples, in the end makes these three regular-sized Mason jars of blackberry jelly. Usually I go through the whole process one more time but I don't know if I will this year. This jelly is going to be super-good, judging from how it tasted hot, and I have already picked the best of the blackberries that were available. Of course its true that more will ripen over time but it didn't look like there was going to be a bumper crop or anything. I want to leave some for other people to enjoy!
You know your jelly worked and won't kill you with unseen bacteria when the jars *pop*. Between half and hour to an hour after you pour the jelly into the jars and seal them up tight you should hear each one pop. That means the vacuum seal worked.
My jars popped nicely one at a time. By then it was off to bed and I slept pretty good, I bet I was dreaming about enjoying that bright, undiluted berry flavour during the winter months.
Leave jars undisturbed for 24 hours. I usually put them in the fridge after that, there's enough room in my fridge to keep the jars there until I open them but you don't have to do that as long as your lids have popped. It might take up to a week for the jelly to set up, so don't panic if its still running inside the jars the next day.
If your jelly doesn't set you have blackberry syrup which is just as good really, except you can't spread it on toast, but apart from that its the exact same flavour as jelly.