Berries: Growing & Cooking

Jane McMorland Hunter and Sally Hughes, Berries: Growing and Cooking

May 2016, Prospect Books £9.99

It is all too easy to take berries for granted. They are gaily flown around the world, crushed, freeze dried, drowned in sugary syrup, and their flavourings are hijacked by the most unlikely of foods – stretchy gums, fluorescent ice-lollies, and more. Since Prehistoric times they have been an important source of food and medicine; while the men hunted, the women gathered, learning by experience which were the best berries. Ancient Greeks, Romans, Native Americans and the nomads of Central Asia all recognized the importance of these fruits; they deserve more attentions and respect than we often give them.

Many berries have prestigious histories; raspberries are red because Zeus’ nursemaid Ida, pricked her finger on the thorns, the Druids regarded cranberries as sacred and Native American tribal elders recounted how the Great Spirit sent ‘star berries’ or blueberries as we know them, to ease the children’s hunger during a famine. Writers as diverse as Tolstoy and Simone de Beauvoir have offered advice on making jam. 

In the kitchen berries are all round performers, enhancing sweet and savoury dishes alike. They can be preserved as jams, jellies, curds or chutneys and bottled in sugar or alcohol. Cakes, biscuits and puddings are all better for the addition of a few berries and in some, such as Eton Mess, fools and clafoutis the berries are the stars.   

As all berries are delicate, they are going to benefit hugely from the few feet they will travel from your garden or hedgerow, rather than the miles they would have had to travel to a shop. Many berries can be harvested wild and, although you obviously have to be careful identifying them correctly, many of the best childhood memories centre round red-stained fingers and a basket of freshly foraged fruit. Wild blackberries may not be as large or glossy as their shop-sold cousins, but they have far more flavour and are much more fun to obtain. 

Another way to get top quality fruit is to grow your own. Whether your kitchen garden consists of a couple of window boxes or a complete allotment, berries are an easy and invaluable addition. Mostly perennials or shrubs, they will give structure to the area, enchanting blossom in spring, a bountiful harvest you would have trouble buying and, in many cases, beautiful autumn colour and brilliant stems in winter. Growing your own berries is one of those areas of kitchen gardening that is definitely an economy; buying the initial plants may seem costly, but most live for years and even in season, berries tend to be expensive.

Strawberries, in particular, may look enticing on the shelves but, unless you are very lucky, will almost certainly be pretty tasteless. Some fruits, such as alpine strawberries are very hard to buy. They are incredibly easy to grow, will fit into any space and taste amazing. Raspberries are also expensive to buy and as they turn squishy if you wash them you really do want to know that they have been grown without the addition of anything you would prefer not to eat. Cultivating your own organically is the obvious and simple solution. By planting summer and autumn fruiting varieties you can have perfect fruit from mid summer right through to autumn.

Blackberries can be a bit rampant, but even here there is a strong argument in favour of growing your own. With a firm hand the long canes are easily kept under control and many of the commercially available varieties are thornless, reasonably compact, turn beautiful colours in autumn and look lovely twining along a wall or fence. Many of the hybrid brambles are also worth growing, mainly because they rarely appear in shops or even farmers’ markets. Tayberries, loganberries and boysenberries all have their own individual charms. As well as delicious fruit, many have good looks; Japanese wineberries have brilliant red stems with red bristles and many bramble cultivars have white-bloomed stems in winter. The huge range of hybrids available means that you can almost certainly find one that will be happy whatever conditions you have.

Blueberries, cranberries and lingonberries all have reputations as superfoods. This is undoubtedly well-deserved and the perfect way to get the best from any fruit is to cultivate your own; no air miles, no refrigeration and no chemicals. These berries demand damp, acidic soil, but apart from that they are simple and rewarding to grow, with blueberries giving good autumn colour and cranberries and lingonberries providing evergreen structure to the garden all year round. Goji berries, which have been cultivated for centuries in China, even having their own festival, are also a superfood and well worth growing. Other more unusual berries such as haskap or honeyberries (an edible honeysuckle), huckleberries and mulberries are also worth considering. Many ornamental plants have edible berries and your crop need not be confined to the working part of a garden (assuming you have the luxury of sufficient space for such divisions). Hawthorns, barberries and checkerberries will increase the beauty of your garden as well as providing you with a bountiful harvest. 

The first part of this book tells the story of berries in history, literature and folklore. Their many health benefits are then described, followed by two sections on obtaining your berries: foraging and growing. We describe which are the best berries to look out for, which to avoid and give clear instructions for growing a huge range of berries, which can be used by experienced or novice gardeners alike. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, come the recipes; over seventy ways to use berries in your kitchen, from Cranberry Roast Ham to Raspberry Brownies and Blueberry Pancakes to Sloe Gin.

Botanists define berries in a way that would leave most lay people baffled, the consequence of which is that tomatoes are berries and strawberries are not. This book works on the premise that if it looks like a berry and tastes like a berry then it probably should be called a berry.  We hope that we have included all the berries that readers would expect to find and also introduced them to a few new or unusual ones. 

We would obviously love you to buy our book. We would love it even more if you bought it from your local bookshop, you might miss it if it goes.