Once you have picked your blackberries, it can be a puzzle what to do with them. It is not always clear whether a berry just picked will be pleasantly sweet or acerbically sharp (though firmness of the fruit is the best indicator), which can put one off feasting as one picks. One solution is to make bramble jelly - a jam made from blackberries, where the possible inconsistency in flavour is blended and overlaid with the added sugar.
Making the Jelly
It should be highlighted that the following recipe is not typical of those found elsewhere. Most recipes for bramble jelly don't suggest treating the stewed fruit as roughly, but instead have the softened fruit simply hanging in a jelly bag or muslin cloth over a bowl overnight. The juice collected from this process is then used to complete the recipe, avoiding the necessity of separating the seeds out of hot jam, but possibly wasting some fruit. This gentle but inefficient method is clearly for wimps with too much time on their hands, not brave blackberry hunters still removing thorns from purple-stained fingers.
The ingredients are fairly simple. A bit of water, an equal weight of blackberries and granulated sugar, and the juice of a lemon for every pound of blackberries (roughly 500g - imperial and metric measurements will be given, try to follow one or the other consistently, but exact measures are not crucial). The lemon juice is less for flavour than for additional pectin to make the jelly set easily, and limes have been substituted with no adverse effect. In some places it is possible to purchase pectin, or (expensive) pectin-enriched 'preserving sugar' (which also has larger granules than standard granulated sugar), but lemons are more readily available. A useful tip for getting the juice most easily from a lemon is to roll it around on the countertop while pressing down on it, before cutting it in half and using your lemon squeezer as usual.
Making bramble jelly can be a messy business, and so making it with too few berries is too much effort. However, working with a large quantity requires a good deal of patience waiting for the jam to reduce to setting consistency. If one is impatient one only gets bramble syrup (though this can be very nice itself, particularly over vanilla ice-cream). So a sensible compromise is about two pounds (one kilogram) of blackberries in each batch. This will make about four normal jars of jelly.
The method comprises the following steps: stew the berries, mash/process into bramble soup, dissolve the sugar, boil until sufficiently reduced to set, pass through a fine mesh to remove seeds, pour into jars, allow to cool, eat.
First place berries in a large saucepan with roughly 6 fluid ounces of water per pound of blackberries (100ml of water per 500g). Bring to the boil then simmer with the lid on for fifteen minutes.
One recipe suggested mashing berries with a wooden spoon to release their juices. The method that saves effort is to use an electric hand blender to whizz the berries into a purple soup1 in seconds. At this stage the seeds could be sieved out, and the recipe continued later with a pound of sugar per pint of bramble juice (500g sugar to 500ml juice).
Add Sugar and Lemon / Prepare Jam Jars
Add the sugar and lemon juice and leave to simmer for about ten minutes, until the sugar has dissolved. To check whether the sugar has dissolved dip a spoon in, stir, lift spoon out and check whether there are grains in the syrup coating the spoon.
While the sugar is dissolving would be a good time to prepare the jam jars and sieving bowl. Jars should be sterile, otherwise the jelly is likely to become quickly mouldy. Wash the jars in soapy water, rinse then put in a hot oven to dry and sterilise. At the same time, if there is room, put in the large bowl you will collect the syrup in when sieving the seeds out of the jam.
Once the sugar has dissolved bring to a rapid boil uncovered to reduce the mixture. Do not leave unattended as the jam can foam up and spill out of the pan during this stage. How long to boil for will vary according to how much jam you are making. It could be as little as ten minutes, but often takes longer. The test is whether the syrup, when cooled, will set sufficiently. To check this take a small spoonful of syrup and put it on a cold plate to quickly cool it (to assist cooling of the blob it can be put in the freezer for a couple of minutes). Push the blob of syrup and if the surface has formed a skin which crinkles it is ready.
This is likely to be the messiest stage, and as noted above can be done after the blending stage, though less pectin may have been released by the seeds that early. Roll up sleeves, wear an apron, put on rubber gloves. Various methods can be employed to separate the hot syrup from the seeds. To be effective the straining device must have holes smaller than the seeds, so a simple sieve wouldn't usually be adequate. A proven method is to ladle the jam into a muslin2 bag sitting in a colander in a large pre-heated bowl (heating the bowl up prevents the jelly setting too quickly in the bowl). Use the back of the ladle against the muslin bag to force the syrup out. As the remaining stuff in the bag becomes a seedy mass add more ladles of jam to the bag. Be careful not to scald your hands as this stuff is hot, but if wearing gloves hands can be used (with caution) to squeeze more syrup from the bag.
Decant Into Jars to Cool
The bowl of syrup3 will become a bowl of jelly if allowed to cool too much. Before this happens, decant it into the prepared sterilised hot jars. Once the jar is full, top the syrup with a waxed disc of paper and loosely put the lid on, or tie a fabric or cellophane disc over the top of the jar. If the jelly is setting before it is decanted into jars, warm it up gently (boiling it as a syrup can be very messy) and it will liquefy again.
Eat the jelly
When the jelly has had the opportunity to cool it should set. It will last for some months, but is best kept refrigerated once open to reduce chances of mould forming and to keep the jelly firm. If it has set firmly you should be able to remove it from the jar with a knife, if only a soft set has been achieved a small spoon will be needed. It goes extremely well with scones in a cream tea. As with redcurrant or cranberry jelly it can also be used as an accompaniment to roast meats such as lamb , turkey or rich gamey meats such as venison and pheasant.
Alternatives to Jelly
If you do not have enough berries to make jam, or just want to use them later, you can freeze them. You do not need to dry them. Take the drained berries and place them on a tray one layer thick, preferably not too crowded. Put this in the freezer and once frozen knock the berries off the tray into a freezer bag, and they can be kept more compactly, but without coming out on defrosting in a huge clump.
With fresh or frozen berries, if they look good enough to eat whole, two favourite recipes are blackberry and apple crumble and summer pudding. Other recipes can be easily found on-line, and include blackberry cordial and blackberry vinegar. The cordial4 can be used instead of Vimto® when making your own non-alcoholic drinks. There are various methods to create a cordial, which is basically a fruit syrup, but using the above recipe omitting the rapid boiling will produce a cordial. This can be used to justify the effort of all the cooking if the jelly doesn't set - pretend you decided to make a delicious cordial instead.
For those who do like the idea of mixing blackberries with alcohol various alcoholic cordial recipes exist, such as Blackberry Whisky, generally involving mixing blackberry juice with alcohol, leaving to steep, then sieving and bottling.