CONKER COTTAGE CRUMBLE!
Now I have to confess that after two years of thrashing “Conker Cottage” into some resemblance of a normal garden, I have three pet hates. Wild nettles, Hawthorn trees (OUCH!) and Brambles. But if you actually want to cultivate a wild Bramble bush in a corner of your garden, you can cut back after the fruit has dropped, pulling the longer cut stems down, and burying them in the soil to form another shoot. Get hold of some horse manure, and plonk it on top. Then the following year you should have berries fit for a Queen. You can even try to train them, preferably without a chair and whip, but remember their growth rate is phenomenal, so you need to check it every couple of weeks. Apparently there is one called an “Oregon thornless” variety for cultivation, now if that could only be applied to my Hawthorn bushes I might begin to like them. It has been noted however the thornless variety can be a bit sour, which in cooking means adding more sugar. To my mind too much sugar and you may as well leave it alone and just eat a banana…far easier.
The Blackberry season runs from the end of summer, which in our British climate can be mid –August. Prime time is the month of September. They can be served cold with a small amount of sugar as you still want to retain that edge of tartness. The history is that they have grown throughout America, Asia and Europe for thousands of years, with statistics revealing they were eaten as early as 8000b.c. In the First World War some areas of England sent out children during the peak time for picking, and the berries crushed to make juice for the soldier’s diets.RUBUS FRUTICOSUS, the traditional European Bramble that we know is the bane of hedgelovers as it is a fast growing, prickly stem plant, and provides the proverbial “thorn in the thumb” of many a gardener. Yet those same tillers of the soil could soon be singing the autumnal praises of the rich fruit it produces in the late summer. It is packed with antioxidants and Vitamin C with the potential to provide some protection against Cancer, thus is good to eat.
Now then, it can be tempting to pick the easy access fruit alongside roads, but avoid these as they may contain pollutants from passing cars. Far better to move away from all main roads to side lanes and woodland where the fruit will be untainted. The trick in collecting Blackberries is to pick only the medium sized fruit. That is to say, avoid overly squishy or hard fruits. Use a walking stick as a hook to pull down some of the heavily laden branches that may be out of reach. The secret to retain the best taste, like all fruit, is to eat as soon as possible, but they freeze exceptionally well, so can be held back for use in the winter months as a special treat. A tip for freezing is not just to toss them into a plastic freezer bag to mold together in the cold like a purple handbag. Lay them out on a tray and freeze the lot. Once solid tip them off the tray and then into freezer bags as they make the second ingredient to the traditional English dish of Bramley Apple and Blackberry crumble. You can sometimes buy Pick Your Own, or cultivated berries but we convince ourselves that these don’t pack the flavour of the wild fruit due no doubt to the labour of love in collecting them.
The Apple to make this delicious crumble is often readily available in many older gardens that have the tree. Or you can pop into the leading supermarkets. The first record of the historic Bramley Apple I found, dated back to October 1862, but the first tree was allegedly planted back ion 1809 by a young girl from Nottinghamshire. Quite how it was known that this is the first tree I cannot understand, but it was, and having been cultivated is now the end product that is bearing financial fruit in the shape of a £50 million industry. This apple is now used in a variety of straight apple, and apple combo recipes with good reason, as the apple coincides with the picking of Blackberries. It even has its own celebratory occasion in the shape of “Bramley Apple Week”, between 7/13th February, and thus an ideal time to make that culinary wedding to your frozen Blackberries.
You would think that eating apples would make the same dish, but not so, as the Bramley “Cooker” has a far higher level of Malic acid, which retains the apple flavour better than eaters. When I was knee-high to a grasshopper, Grandad sent me scurrying up our Bramley tree to get all the cookers down. A complete no-no in this era of health and safety, but I did get some childish enjoyment in thumping on the odd branch to send chunky Bramleys raining on his head. For storage back then, there were no freezers, just larders with the mesh fly-screen over a window to the air outside. Yet I would get the job of laying out all the unbruised specimens on a bench in an old stable, rolling up newspaper between them to preventing fruits touching. Thus Grandma had a source for apple pies for several months. Today the freezer does a better job, but first I peel, core and soak in a lemon juice and water mix for 15 mins, dry them with paper towelling, then spread on a tray and freeze. Once frozen they go into freezer bags ready for use in the winter. Then you can be in the middle of the cold spell and still enjoy the fruits of autumn at a time when they will be more than welcome.
So here is the Bramble and Blackberry recipe for the famous…”Conker Cottage Crumble”…
(For the filling)
8 x large Bramley apples, as this size mix will be sufficient for two different crumbles,4/6 people, one to use fresh, the other to freeze, thus maximising the energy used gas/electric etc.
About 1 ½ kg of wild blackberries.
250gm of dark brown sugar (unrefined cane sugar)
Lemon juice (I use from a 250ml bottle of Tesco Lemon juice).
McDougall’s 1kg Crumble mix.
(For the topping)
Two ways to do this. Either make your own crumble with 550gm plain white flour, 100 gm of butter and 200 gms of Brown sugar (add to taste). Mix together to make the crumble….Or……
Get hold of a ready-made McDougall’s Crumble mix, just sprinkle over fruit and bake, as easy as that, without all the faff of making your own crumble. This comes in a 1kg bag, which is just enough to do two crumble dishes above, and a real time saver. For this article I used the ready-made but added our Conker Cottage “booster” with a dusting of Fiddes Payne Vanilla flavoured sugar (150gm tub).
STEP ONE- Take the Blackberries out of the freezer, just stand to thaw.Peel, core and slice into ¼” thick slices the Bramley Apples, placing them in a large saucepan with a small amount of water to prevent burning, say four tablespoons. Heat up, but do not boil to a pulp, you want to cook the apples, just to soften, it may take 20/30 mins.Turn them over several times during cooking as you will find eight apples is a lot of fruit and requires turning to cook all segments. Remember to use a large saucepan as you have to add the blackberries. When the apples have cooked through….
STEP TWO-Add the blackberries. Now you can either weigh your apples beforehand, or you can go by a guess ratio. You want enough blackberries to give the colour, but not so many it is more blackberry than apple. Other recipes work on an apple to blackberry ratio of about 3 to 1. I wanted to make sure I could taste the blackberries so upped it to about one third to half of berries to apple, in volume, not weight. You can add to suit your own taste. Cook these down again, but turn over carefully this time so you don’t end up with a puree’, you want a bit of texture retained. Here’s a tip. Some recipes suggest just cooking the apples, add sugar, then mix the berries, but don’t cook, just put them in the pie dish and thence the oven. It lets the oven do the cooking. However, wild berries will have plenty of seeds, which is why I cook them down again with the apples to soften the seeds. If using cultivated berries you don’t need to do this. Put your oven on for preheat, Gas 4/180 degrees C.
STEP THREE-After say twenty minutes of low to moderate heat add 300 gms of Dark brown sugar. Keeping stirring gently. I like to break down the sugar with this mix in the saucepan so it really melts away, but don’t let it burn and stick. Then add in a very good sprinkling of ground Cinnamon. If I had an arm twisted I would say two level teaspoons, but it will help give it that woody /nutty taste
STEP FOUR-Spoon into your two casserole(or similar) dishes, spreading evenly so pieces of apple are throughout the serving area, otherwise someone gets an apple ,someone else get a blackberry one !. Then, as easy as you like, sprinkle the ready made McDougall’s crumble mix evenly on both. Now do not press it down. The crumble needs to dry and go brown, if you push down it defeats the object. Just lightly level with a fork and leave. Apply a dusting of crushed almonds on top of the crumble. As a guesstimate, a level teaspoon for each dish. Place into the oven until the crumble is a light golden brown. This may take from 15 mins to half an hour depending on your oven.
STEP FIVE-Remove when golden brown, add the Conker Cottage secret, a good dusting of Fiddes Payne Vanilla Sugar. It just adds that little something extra that your guests or family might find to their liking. You can serve with cream or custard. So there you have a dish that will spice up your apples and yet retain that wildfruit taste of the hedgerow and woodland in the shape of the blackberries. Providing you the Bramleys and Blackberries all frozen down you can use this any time through the winter.