Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Blackberry Daydreams


It seems to be a good year for blackberries - or perhaps it's just because my workload has lessened dramatically due to the pandemic and I have the unaccustomed luxury of enough time to wander, harvesting the hedgerows.

The September air is cool, with still a touch of warmth when the sun breaks through. Abundant clusters of blackberries hang among the tangle of brambles. I push my way in, thorns snagging my clothes and hair. Delicately I pluck the tender berries and the pile in my basket grows rapidly. Despite my care, my fingers are soon stained with purple juice, and my arms and hands scratched. 

The blackberries look to me like tiny jewelled ornaments, each tiny drupelet like a shining bead of jet or onyx. They are a treasure, an abundant late-summer gift of delicious fruit that can be enjoyed in the moment or harvested and transformed into preserves to bring a taste of summer in the depths of winter. Across the valley the jays screech in the oaks as they harvest and stash their own winter treasure trove of acorns. The jays and I, preparing for the unknown times ahead, gratefully gather the plenty that is offered us. We know that nothing is certain.

As we take, we give too. We help the blackberries and oaks by dispersing their seeds. Jays (along with squirrels) are actually responsible for planting the vast majority of oak trees. They bury acorns to keep as a winter food source - and acorns need to be covered with soil to germinate. A single jay can collect up to 5,000 acorns so it's inevitable that some of their haul will remain buried and later sprout into new trees. Likewise, the seeds of consumed blackberries pass unharmed through the digestive tracts of birds, animals and humans and are distributed when they re-emerge at the end of the process! The blackberries, the jays, the oak trees, remind me that we are all part of the intricately woven and interconnected web of life.

My basket is almost full but still I comb the thicket for more treasure, peering up and down, side to side. It's amazing how a small change in the way I look at the brambles suddenly reveals new, previously hidden berries hanging in ripe clusters. What a good reminder of the importance of trying to see things from all sides and being flexible!

I pop berries in my mouth, enjoying the sweet, tangy juices - and I throw some to the eager chickens too. That's another important thing to remember - when you have plenty - share it! The blackberries give generously and it is good to follow their example. 

At last, I head back to the house. The sun, now low in the sky, slants golden light across the fields and I take a few moments to sit on the bench that overlooks the valley and watch the rooks circling their rookery in preparation for the oncoming night. Tawny owls call to each other. The air smells of the berry juice on my fingers, the spearmint next to the bench that I brushed past, and woodsmoke from a neighbour's bonfire. My hands are scratched and my hair is dishevelled but I have a basket full of ripe blackberries and the jays have their acorns. We are blessed, and we know it. 

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Sunshine Soup

Hmm, what to make with these things in the fridge that need eating up when I'm feeling uninspired? Yes, it was that kind of weekend. Faced with a butternut squash, a yellow pepper and some single cream that was going out of date, I fell back on that old reliable solution: soup. And let me tell you, despite its unpromising origins it was delicious. Smooth, spicy, warming and a beautiful golden colour. What else to call it but Sunshine Soup!

Here's how I made it (and rest assured, despite the photo it does not contain any palm tree). 

Sunshine Soup (or Stew)

Serves 4-6 people, depending how hungry you are.

Sesame oil
1 medium sized onion
1 2-inch piece of fresh ginger root
400g butternut squash (peeled and de-seeded)
1 yellow pepper
1 medium potato
Cayenne pepper to taste
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp black pepper
Vegetable stock
1 tin chopped tomatoes (or you could use fresh)
Single cream

Peel and chop the onion and the ginger, and fry in a large saucepan over a gentle heat in a splash of sesame oil. Cut the squash into chunks and add to the pan. De-seed and chop up the yellow pepper and add it too. Cut the potato into small dice and add to the pan, stir the mixture well. 

Sprinkle over the cayenne pepper (I have left the amount to your discretion, you know how hot and spicy you like your food! If you're not sure, add a little to start with, you can always add more but it's impossible to reduce it once it's in there), paprika, cumin seeds and black pepper, stir well again  and pour over enough stock to completely cover the vegetables. 

Turn up the heat and bring to a gentle boil. Add the tin of tomatoes, and simmer until the vegetables are all nice and soft.*

Using a stick blender or a food processor, blend until the mixture is smooth. Pour in some cream and stir well. Check the seasoning and adjust if necessary. Serve with crusty bread.

* It has occurred to me that at this stage you could adapt the recipe into a hearty, spicy vegetarian stew by adding a tin of kidney beans or chick peas. I would serve it like this with rice.


This recipe may have originated as a serendipitous mixture of disparate ingredients, but it was so delicious I will definitely be making it again! Let me know if you make any!


Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Suddenly September

And so here we are in September. 

There is a chill in the morning air. Days are noticeably shorter. Apples hang plumply from the tree and rosehips glow in the hedge. The sycamore leaves are beginning to brown. Yet the sun is still warm and the swallows still dance in the sky. Summer is drawing to a close, but gently.

How did we get here so quickly? Time has been a strange companion these last months. Though life in lockdown was slow and peaceful, still the months seem to have slid past quickly and already we are three quarters of the way through 2020. It's been such a strange year, the fact that we're entering its last stages will no doubt please many. Yet I suspect the strangeness will not evaporate on 31st December. Strange is the new normal as our expectations and priorities and beliefs about our lives are upended and re-examined and we learn to navigate the new reality in which we find ourselves. It's disturbing and often hard and painful. Isn't that always true of change? And yet... at times I find myself relishing the challenge. I think we could build something new and wonderful from the wreckage. Throw out what no longer serves, question the status quo, refuse to go back to the system that has created so much injustice and inequality. 

On this first day of a new month, one which sees the beginning of the new academic year, let's pause to think about the opportunities to learn that are there for us all. What has been stripped away? What essentials remain? What do we need to let go of? What do we need to bring in? What do we want to create? Where do we want to be this time next year?

Let's seize the initiative. Let's create the lives we truly want, not the lives they've tried to tell us we want. I don't want to be part of a system that keeps most of the world in poverty while a handful of billionaires call the shots. I don't want things, I want connection and meaning. I don't want to keep running on the hamster wheel, I want to spend time with people I love doing things that make the world a better place. 

When they urge you to 'get back to normal' so that they can get the system up and running again, refuse. Withdraw your support for a system that is only there to benefit the few. Dream a better future - then create it. Let's work together, for the good of all.