Blackberries have a habit of ripening first beside dusty roads, where cars fling up a good deal of fine grit at them so you’re prevented from eating them there and then. Or they ripen somewhere inaccessible, beside motorways, or, as I noticed the other weekend sitting on the Overground, right beside dicey railway tracks near Kensal Rise. Blackberries straight from the bramble are one of the loveliest stolen treats, not least because they tell me that summer is slipping into early autumn, perhaps my favourite time of year. I found a handful yesterday in Granchester beside the rough little road that leads to the lido carpark. I picked them and walked back to Queens’ with them cupped in my hands.
When I got back I tumbled them into a bowl, immersed them in cold water and left them for a while, so that little bugs and dust would float away from the berries.
Yesterday at the market I found that the greengrocers had started stocking discoveries. I bought a couple of pounds and ate one on my way to Sainsbury’s. I’m charmed again and again by this apple, the way, after a brief rub on your shirt, it shines up to a really sluttish red, its strawberry sweetness, its pink-veined innards, its appley tartness.
This morning I made a birchermuesli of sorts, the first for a while as (Bramleys aside) I’ve been avoiding apples till the beginning of the season: a grated discovery, yoghurt, oats, prunes, a good pinch of cinnamon, milk to loosen. I left it to stand for half an hour, time for a couple of coffees and a flick through the newspaper websites, for the oats to swell, and the apple to lend its rosey juice to the mix. A good fragrant honey – I’ve got some Manuka at the moment which has resinous spiciness – is in order here; the early apples are quite tart. Later in the season I might want lemon juice.
Today after dinner I wanted blackberry and apple, a combination which, like the discoveries themselves, I fall in love with year in, year out, and say to myself Oh yes! Some things are just meant to be! I’m still in my little gyp-room kitchen, so there’s no oven. I could murder a blackberry and apple crumble and custard, steaming and gummy with fruit at the edges – or a pie, with thin, sandy pastry and very cold double cream. But I can’t have them, so I compromise. I sautee the apples in a little butter until they take a bit of colour. The blackberries I puree with a couple of spoonfuls of sugar. Later in October, bramleys cooked down to a purple swathe with the last of the blackberries will have a fortified depth – perhaps a better filling for pies and crumbles in any case – but just now the discoveries and pert little berries yield, in close contact, a brilliant, spry fragrance.
Now I make a quick egg custard. Extravagant for one, you could say. But custard is worth the trouble, however great or small that might be. And besides, it’s one of those things, like mayonnaise or pastry or butter sauces, about which there is so much needless anxiety and fuss. I heat a generous wineglass of milk in a pan until I can’t dip my little finger in it any longer. In a bowl I beat the yolk of an egg very thoroughly, which I’ve carelessly separated so that there’s still a bit of white in there. I tip the milk to the egg, whisk, then then egg and milk back to the pan. I stir over a medium heat till, as steam begins to rise from its surface, it thickens properly, then decant it into a cold bowl. I add a couple of teaspoons of sugar and a generous splash of vanilla. Five minutes are rewarded with a pale primrose emulsion – viscous, ambrosial, nourishing – and absolutely the most fabulous thing (I use the word advisedly) to temper the youthful pep of the first discoveries and blackberries. I arrange the three things, custard, puree and sauteed apples as attractively as I can on a nice white plate, and dive in.