Blackberry Mead and a Bloody Knee

This week’s post was going to be about E.F. Schumacher and the concepts he wrote about in relation to getting back to a ‘human sized’ economic system. But fate intervened and things did not go according to plan …

If you read my post last week you may also recall that I said I was going to share a recipe for blackberry mead. Now that the autumnal equinox has passed (for those of us in the northern hemisphere), meaning the nights are drawing in and the balance between darkness and light has tipped in favour of the former, thoughts turn to the winter ahead and what needs to be done in advance of the cold months. It’s a naturally reflective time of year, and a personal favourite season of mine. What’s more, I love going out and gathering some of the bounty nature has been busy growing over the summer. And what could be more autumnal than the humble blackberry?

It’s been a pretty good year for blackberries here in west Cornwall, and there are some very juicy specimens adorning the hedgerows. Astrologically minded people might tell you the reason for this is that the bramble is a plant ruled by Mars, which also signals blood and destruction. Mars is pretty powerful right now and can be seen moving backwards in the sky at present, causing all sorts of havoc here on Earth until mid-November, so they say. But personally, I think the berries might be so big just because of the long hot summer we’ve had. Anyway, bearing in mind my promise to make blackberry mead, I set out foraging for the necessary ingredients one late afternoon.

I found a promising bank of overgrown brambles and blackthorn down near the beach and was happily picking away when I spotted a cluster of absolutely huge specimens. When I say huge, I mean they were yuge – like glittering plump gems shimmering in the mellow light of the sunset! The only trouble was they were towards the centre of the bushes and slightly out of reach. No trouble, I thought, and boldly blundered into said bush. I should probably add at this point that it was a hot day and I was wearing shorts. As I reached for the juicy prize there was a sharp pain on my shin, just below my right knee, and when I’d extracted myself from the bush I took a look at it. It was nothing to worry about, just a minor scratch, and with very little blood. 

About half an hour later and I decided to take an impromptu dip in the sea; after all, I knew that saltwater was good for scratches and small wounds. I forgot all about the scratch until later that night, when it began to sting. At this point I rubbed it with disinfectant and went to bed. By the morning it had begun to feel painful and had become red and inflamed. It seemed like the ‘little scratch’ was going to cause trouble …

You can probably guess the rest of the story, which saw me confined to bed, hardly able to walk, and ended with a visit to the Urgent Care unit at my local hospital a couple of days ago where they cleaned out what had become a festering open wound and put me on antibiotics. I’m sitting here writing this with my throbbing swollen leg up on the desk, vowing never again to allow even the tiniest blackthorn to scratch my skin. 

I’m lucky to have antibiotics to treat my infected limb. While the various poultices of yarrow and plantain I’ve previously used successfully on other injuries are useful treatments, I’m happy that these are not the only choices available to me. This would have been very different in the past. As recently as the seventeenth century in Britain, most people lived in rural locations and had to rely on the immediate services offered by their ecosystems in order to be able to survive. This all changed with the enclosures acts, which forced the majority of folks off the land to seek work in the cities. Deprived of their land, people who for centuries had lived modest lives in the countryside now found themselves crammed into slums and forced to work in often appalling factory conditions. 

Disease and exploitation was rife, but it was the psychic break with the land that has possibly had a longer lasting and more profound effect. Nowadays, it’s only the upper middle classes and higher who can afford to live in splendid rural isolation, and even a basic smallholding is out of the reach of most people due to the cost. Rural land itself is still reasonably affordable, but strict planning laws make it almost impossible for people of average means to actually live on the land they own. Furthermore, the mindset of the enclosures is still firmly entrenched in the national psyche, it seems, and planning reform moves at a glacial pace.

Nevertheless, the land is still there, and we remain occupiers of it, however modest our footprint. Look at a satellite image of the British Isles, for instance, and it would still look pretty much the same as it did a thousand years ago. The mountains are still there, just as the main river arteries, beaches and watersheds are. Mankind may have rearranged things at ground level to his own advantage, but the wider planetary functions and natural impetuses remain. Whatever the planners, civil engineers, agriculturalists and construction industry have managed to disrupt, nature is ceaselessly working to undo again. Flowers still grow on wasteland, trees sprout up in disused parking lots, streams still seek rivers, the sea still nibbles at the land and the Sun and Moon still look down in the same way they always have done. The land is still full of marvellous creatures – and one of them is you!

But how rooted to the land are you? These days it is common to move from one part of the country to another following a career change or to study. Modern life has made us rootless, and we are all rolling stones gathering no moss, as the saying goes. But this rootless way of life comes at a cost and it is difficult for us to truly be a part of the environment that we live in. For a start, we simply don’t spend enough time in one place experiencing the seasons and getting to know the different species of plants and animals that thrive there. Yet the land around us – however degraded it looks – still offers us plenty in the way of sustenance if only we knew where to look for it. Luckily, there’s the beginnings of a solution to that and it can be boiled down to one command: observe.

Here’s a challenge: get a map of your local area and use a pair of compasses to mark out a circle in a one- or two-mile radius from your dwelling. Make it your business to try and walk every street, road, back alley or public footpath in the zone you have demarcated. There’s no hurry – in fact, the longer you take over this the better because all you need to do is observe. You can take a camera and a notebook with you whenever you go for a wander in order to make notes. If there’s a common plant you see growing everywhere and you’ve no idea what it is, look it up when you get home. Somehow, when you can put a name to a plant it becomes more relatable in your mind. 

If you are new to the area it may take a year or two just to get to know what grows there. I have lived in my town for about seven years now, and my ecological knowledge of it grows every time I step outside. I know where to find wild garlic in the spring, where the nearest source of fresh water is from my front door, how the salt winds from the sea cause the berries on certain bushes to grow smaller than others, where abandoned apple trees shed unwanted fruit free for the picking, where the pollock like to linger over reefs in the, and many other things beside.

Deepening your knowledge of the area you live in has other benefits. Buy any popular foraging book and you’ll learn what food you can get for free. It’s surprising how much is just there for the picking, and yet it remains invisible to nearly all. In April, at the height of the (seemingly first) coronavirus panic, I went to the supermarket only to find most of the shelves stripped bare. In the salad aisle there was not a single piece of lettuce or kale to be had. People looked annoyed and frustrated that the products they took for granted had suddenly stopped appearing on the shelves. 

On my way out I glanced across the parking lot at the adjacent field. Right across the field there was masses of frothy green foliage appearing. Alexanders! Wild and aromatic, this is one of the tastiest spring greens you can find, especially when steamed and sprinkled with butter and salt. The plant was introduced by the Romans, who went wild for its subtle flavour, and here it was, probably enough for a thousand people right there next to the supermarket, and free for the picking. 

I went over and picked a couple of bags before heading home.

***

Blackberry mead, Cornish style

Mead is a honey wine with an ancient pedigree. It has been brewed right across Europe, Asia and Africa, although it’s perhaps best known as the favourite tipple of the Vikings. The brewing process uses honey rather than sugar, although you can substitute with the latter if you can’t get hold of decent honey or want to keep the cost down. It’s important that you use decent wildflower honey rather than the cheap sugary mass-produced stuff you find in supermarkets. The reason for this is that industrially produced honey has very few of the properties and complex organics of wild harvested honey. So, if you can, use only clear honey produced by small batch local beekeepers – the more natural they keep their bees the better. 

In Norse mythology the mead served in the great feasting halls of Valhalla flows freely from the udders of the cosmic goat Heidrun, who grazes eternally on the leaves of the sacred tree Laeraor, but for rest of us we’ll need the following equipment and ingredients:

Ingredients

4.5 lb (2kg) fresh blackberries

4.5 lb (2kg) wildflower honey

A small handful of juniper berries

Juice of ¼ lemon

1 tsp/packet Yeast

1tsp pectolase powder

A handful of wild rose leaves or oak bark (see below)

Equipment

1 very large saucepan – not aluminium (stainless steel is fine)

1-gallon (5L) fermentation bucket with airlock

1 long plastic or stainless steel spoon 

1-gallon (5L) demijohn (aka carboy) with airlock

1 muslin cloth or similar for straining

Sterilise all your brewing equipment before you get started using tablets or a few drops of dilute bleach. You can also just stick it in a dishwasher cycle. 

Put the washed berries and rose leaves/oak bark in a large pan with 2L of filtered water and bring to the boil. Some traditional recipes call for a few juniper berries to be added for botanical flavour, but I’m using sloes because I can’t find any juniper growing around here. The rose leaves or oak bark are to add tannin, which is a natural compound that binds the flavour and adds body. 

Partially cover and simmer for about half an hour, occasionally stirring, then take off the heat and allow to cool to around 160 Fahrenheit (70 Celsius). This should take around an hour, and if you don’t have a thermometer you can gauge the temperature by putting your hand on the pot: if you can keep it there for a few seconds then it has cooled enough. Add the honey, lemon juice and the black tea (if you are using it) and stir it up until the honey has dissolved. 

Many recipes say you should boil the honey, but if you do that, you’ll lose its unique curative and preservative properties, as well as its delicate volatile oils. Decent honey needs to be treated with care, which is why I never boil it.

Next, wait for it to cool to room temperature and carefully pour it into your fermentation bucket. I use a plastic ladle for this purpose so that it doesn’t splash everywhere. Then add the yeast and the pectolase (this enzyme ensures you get the best yield out of the fruit, but it isn’t 100% essential). 

Traditionally, wild yeasts would be used by simply leaving the brew out in the open for a few hours. You can try this, but it can be a bit hit and miss, so I recommend adding manufactured yeast. I use white wine yeast, but you could just use standard baker’s yeast and get pretty much the same result. 

Activate the yeast by letting it sit on the surface for around 10 minutes before mixing it in. Top up the bucket with room temperature filtered water, if it needs it, but not so high that it will interfere with the airlock when it is fermenting, so leave at least an inch to allow for bubbling. Put the lid on the bucket, fit the airlock and put it somewhere out of the way. Fermentation should start within 24 hours.

A week later, strain the fermenting mixture through a piece of muslin and pour it into a sterilised 1-gallon demijohn. Fit an airlock and wait for fermentation to complete – which could be a week or three. When all fermentation has finished, rack off the mead into sterilised bottles and store them somewhere away from heat and light. I often pilfer fancy spirit bottles from local recycling bins and then soak off the labels – the fancier the better.

The mead will be ready to drink as soon as all fermentation has ceased but will improve with age. Perhaps the ideal intermediate date to aim for would be around winter solstice, by which time it should be a thick, sweet botanical mead that will warm the cockles of your heart.

For this recipe the strength should be around 14 percent alcohol, or 28 proof. Whether you drink it from a horn or from the skulls of your vanquished enemies is purely optional. Skål!

8 thoughts on “Blackberry Mead and a Bloody Knee

  1. Going to try that for sure! Blackberries & wild roses from my garden, allotment & the hedgerows, honey from the beekeepers over by the airport, the rest from my brewing stash. Very timely, thank you; I have more than enough blackberries in the freezer & they don’t dehydrate well, there’s already enough jam & chutney to keep a small army happy for the winter, yet still they ripen & I can’t resist picking them! Just back from a week’s camping in your part of the world; you’re a lucky (and clever) man!

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  2. Thanks for the how to on mead. I tried making some sort of berry wine this season. I proceeded in a rather haphazard way. Hope to be able to use your instructions to improve on my product. I have also done some infusions – vodka + surgar + plant matter. That sort of thing is a little less complicated. There is a local tree here in Mexico called cuastecomate. It produces ten centimeter diameter gourds which contain a mixture of pulp and seeds. You drill a hole in the top of the gourd and fill the gourd up with tequila plus some honey, stopper the hole and let the gourd sit for a few weeks. The result is a black liquid with a pleasant taste. The liquid is said to be good for treating respiratory diseases. Elderberry infusions are also said to have good anti-viral properties.
    The thing with these plant infusions is that you can make them pleasant enough so that taking a shot before going to bed is a pleasurable activity. Not all medicine need be bitter.
    As for your tips on getting to know your environment, always good advice though harder to do in large cities with their surrounding sprawl, though the seeker shall always find.
    Your post on paganism has also kicked over a dormant plan to revitalize my nature contacts which essentially constists of walking or sitting in a natural environment while listening to what it has to say. A good deal of spiritual knowledge is just sitting out there waiting for us to trip over it. Anyway, my experience has been that there is a lot out there to be discovered. Plus humans are hunters, a practice that requires quiet focused attention, which I think is what a lot of meditation practices are about, albeit without the killing of the animal. What does an Eskimo do, hunched over a seal’s breathing hole with harpoon poised waiting for the seal to come up for air? As you might put it, it’s spiritual practices without the costumes.

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    1. That gourd concoction certainly sounds interesting. The last time I was in Mexico a man tried to get me to drink tequila with a worm in it. I was a vegetarian at the time so I passed over his kind offer.

      As for infusions – yes, as a matter of fact I’ve been making quite a few of them recently and have even set up a little Etsy shop selling them (all will be revealed in due course). I’m all for making them tasty … nobody likes medicine that tastes of medicine! Last year I made a huge batch of elderberry syrup in anticipation of the dreaded C-19 (this was back in early December), as well as a couple of litres of leaf tincture.

      I know what you mean about it being harder to get to know your environment if you live in a city. Mind you, some cities are better than others in this respect. When I lived in London I quite literally lived in a small forest there. Furthermore it was surrounded by parks and river and other green areas … didn’t feel like a city at all. On the other hand, I spent a few days in Guatemala City once, and the only natural space I could see there was a river where they dumped all the trash, so …

      As for paganism, I think it’s more of a mindset thing than anything else. My friend Thomas (who featured in last week’s post) made an excellent video about this – he manages to explain more in an hour, just sitting in his car, than you’ll get from a stack of books. Here’s the link if you are interested.

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      1. Thanks for the link to Thomas Sheridan’s video. I also went to check out what he had to say on mossuponstones.com. Will have to do more reading of his ideas. He seems to be trying to come to terms with Irish Paganism of the past and the role that would-be modern pagans like himself should have in its future. One aspect of Chaos Paganism which he seems to be espousing is personal autonomy in determining the nature of Paganism for themselves.
        Part of Sheridan’s definition of Paganism is in the form of saying what it is not, most notably that it is not Christianity with its angry Abrahamic God. Well that’s a relief. Seems to me that a lot of Christian sects in the American south are rather pagan in form except for the fact that they always fall back on the Bible as the defining document of who they are. If you took that book away from them, it would be hard to tell them apart from pagans anywhere else in the world.
        I don’t know whether Sheridan would classify the practices of Pre-Columbian natives as Pagan, He seems to be quite liberal in welcoming the Hindu practices. But it seems to me that unlike European Pagans, the American native practices define themselves without reference to or in opposition to Christianity.
        I also think that a lot of the native practices are lacking in human inspired Gods. Their spirit relationships may be strictly personal, something the individual shaman works out for himself. Their spiritual practices seem to be of a pre-pagan form lacking the formalized practices and beliefs of later established religions. That is, there have not been councils that met to establish official dogma and condemn heretics. It seems that this is the direction that Sheridan wants to go itn

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    2. One of Thomas Sheridan’s main contentions is that a lot of modern Pagan movements have all the trappings of Abrahamic religions with a fresh coat of paint on them. The Norse Asatru movement, as well as Wicca seem to be particularly irksome. But perhaps this is understandable as there is some evidence that the Odin archetype was co-opted by the Romans to spread Christianity to us barbarians, with Jesus being nailed to a plank instead of Odin being nailed to a tree. So, our European minds have been conditioned to accept some form of top-down interpretation of the mysteries of the cosmos – something that would ideally be lacking in a more experiential version of Paganism, such as still exists in Latin America. European shamanism was stamped out long ago.

      To be honest, I think a lot of people are drawn to the idea of Paganism due to the vacuum of meaning left by the implosion of Christianity, as well as the general lack of meaning in modern life. I have met many Pagans who think it is all about dressing up as witches/wizards/druids and saying ‘bright blessings’ to one another, but still hang onto all the restricting forms of thinking that they have grown up with. For example, many of them are highly political (usually liberal), and I have noticed they are particularly susceptible to suggestive propaganda.

      Thomas could be forgiven for coming across as anti-Christian, given that Ireland was until recently a strictly controlled Catholic country. I personally don’t share his antipathy, but that’s probably because I was brought up in a non-religious household and only ever found myself in a church at weddings and funerals.

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  3. Hi Jason,

    Septicemia is anecdotally on the rise, or perhaps I’m more aware of it having known a few people to suffer it, but that anecdotal evidence alone is an interesting thing. We keep 93% alcohol in a jar ready to hand to cleanse wounds – and can make the stuff. And also I make a habit of removing splinters, thorns etc. On another note if you can I’d suggest getting a tetanus booster shot. Mate that one used to wipe out quite a number of people, err regularly. An unpleasant way to go if Mr Kunstler’s description in the World Made by Hand novel was anything to go by.

    How good are blackberries? We also make blackberry wine, but use cane sugar which is plentiful and easy to obtain down here (on a whim I tried growing the stuff, yeah no dice) and also blackberry jam. It’s outrageous that the local councils spend ratepayers tax money poisoning the berries (and anything that eats them) when people could just pick them. The canes grow back within two years of poisoning, but if it makes people feel like they are doing something useful doing that activity…

    Hey, how are you feeling now? Hopefully given you are writing about the incident, you’re OK?

    A chunk of Antarctic air hit the farm today and it was as if a blizzard arrived. This is not good news for the fruit crop, but oh well see how it goes is the way things are.

    We share the same planning laws given the similar origins and they were Byzantine. Fortunately I can read and respond to legislation, but that is not for everyone. And the real horror was discovering the cost of construction and just manning it up (or chicking it up in the case of my lady) and constructing the small house ourselves using our own labour. If there were any other way…

    Cheers

    Chris

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    1. Hi Chris – I didn’t know cane sugar grew that well in your part of Australia. It used to grow liberally in the area nearby where we lived in Spain – the so-called Costa Tropicale – and I was partial to a glass of fresh juice from it from time to time. I imagine it’d be a great thing for brewing with. Incidentally, in the course of researching mead I came a cross the fact that Plato wrote about it – his recipe is simplicity itself. You simply extract a honeycomb from a hive and chuck it in a container filled with fresh rainwater. Nature does the rest.

      I’m mostly healed from my thorn injury, thanks. I’m not one to take antibiotics just like that – I can’t remember the last time I had any – but this threatened to be quite a bad septic case. I can walk normally now and the swelling has gone away. Perhaps I will keep some 90% proof alcohol on hand like you do – I need to get hold of some pure grain ethanol in any case for some of my other projects.

      BTW sorry to hear about your mate. I read about in on your blog but hadn’t got round to responding. Long term friendships are getting harder to maintain in these testing times, and although in my case nobody has died, I have lost a number of good friends over the last five years.

      Antarctic air? That sounds … chilling.

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