Growing up in my family meant I regularly heard tales of bilberry picking from my Mother. As a child during the Second World War her father borrowed a friend’s cottage in the countryside to keep his family away from the bombing the heart of Manchester was experiencing. Hattersley has now been completely swallowed up by Manchester’s expanding borders but when my Mother was living there, it was a tiny hamlet. My Grandfather remained in Manchester during the week to be nearer his work while my Grandmother coped for over four years with a teenage daughter and twin girls of four or five at first in a tiny cottage that had no drinking water and no bathroom. For my Mother, it was heaven on earth. She loved the wide open spaces, the stream at the bottom of the garden, the woods, the fields, the flowers, the wildlife, the freedom and all that country living brought with it. Bilberry picking was one of the many things that she indulged in and for years I believed that this allusive fruit was only available around Hattersley. Something of a problem if you know Hattersley these days. Not quite the rural idyl it used to be.
Then I realised that this could not possibly be true. Bilberries were quite clearly available in other places to. But I have to confess that I had no idea at all, until tipped off on twitter by @loafonline that bilberries grew close to me. More than twenty years of home-made bilberry jam missed out on. Bother. You would think that calling a local landmark Bilberry Hill might have been a clue, wouldn’t you? Then again, I do not know the Lickey Hills. Not too bad a I defence I think. Tis the only one I have and ’twill have to suffice.
So, yesterday the Captain and I went off in search of them. Although to be frank, very little was required in the way of searching. We drove to the Lickey Hills Country Park, and within about 400 yards of the car park we wading knee-deep in bilberry bushes.
I have never picked bilberries before. How can I have got to the grand old age of 45 and this be the case? Then again, we became something of a spectacle for the many other visitors, absolutely none of whom were interested in bilberry picking. It was masterful of me not to simply sit down and gorge myself on these divine weeny berries. They are small, deep purple and sweet with a tart edge to them. Delicious.
Within minutes our hands were stained purple as the berries were burstingly ripe and the juices ran down our fingers. I decided it was not a good time to tell the Captain that in years gone by bilberries have been used for dye. They were not easy to pick. Partly because the bushes are low down thus much bending is involved and partly because the berries do not grow in clumps. Just one or two berries hang on each stem.
We picked solidly for two hours. They are tiny, these berries. They frequently squished on picking but they are so delicious the effort was very worthwhile. The Lickey Hills is a lovely area and with good weather it really was a delightful way to spend our anniversary. The simplicity of gathering wild berries is a pleasure that is hard to beat.
Our two hour’s worth of picking yielded 600g of berries which is not a lot. But as I said, so worth it.
I spent the whole of the drive home pondering the best way to use our precious crop. I discounted the various puddings, pies, crumbles and compotes I came up with, settling in the end for jam, as I wanted to make them last as long as possible. It is possibly unimaginative, but it is very delicious. It was also the easiest jam I have ever made and filled the house the most amazing aroma imaginable.
450g granulated sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
Pick over the bilberries to remove any stems or leaves and then wash very gently. Place in preserving pan with the lemon juice and crush lightly with the end of a rolling pin. Heat slowly until the juices begin to flow then add the sugar. Stir until dissolved. Turn up heat and bring to rolling boil. Boil until setting point achieved – about 10 mins. Pour into sterilised jars and seal.