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Gangster Cows and Bramble Jelly: How do you make jam? Are bullocks dangerous? And other important questions.

When I was young, we walked to Mitcham Common for the bramble harvest. It was an annual family task: Mum, Dad, sister; Gran and Grandad; uncles and aunts picking the bushes til our fingers stung, loading carrier bags with fruit, until at the end of the day we hauled the bags home, fat and heavy, dripping with juice.

In the kitchen, Mum emptied out the blackberries. They tumbled into the sink and floated. She removed stowaway stalks and leaves, then lifted the berries in handfuls to the pan where she boiled them to a steaming mush over the hissing blue flames of our Cresta cooker; the window in the kitchen steamed and the house filled with the smell of September.

When the blackberries were pulp, Mum hung them in a sheet over the bath – a plump squidgy ball, dripping purple juice into a washing up bowl already stained from previous harvests. Then, after two days of secret poking at the bag and washing ourselves at the sink, Mum removed the jelly sack. She threw away the fruit mash and poured the inky juice back into the jam pan and boiled it up, this time adding sugar and lemon and dipping in her brass thermometer to check the heat. At setting point, she lined up jars on the draining board – sparkling squeaky clean glass – and poured the syrup in.

Next morning the jam was cool and we spread autumn on our toast. Wet bracken and misty mornings, dew-jewelled webs and fallen leaves all caught in the taste of the dark jelly.


Memories of blackberrying drive me to the woods. I'm done with summer sun. I want to walk in the shade and hear crows caw. I want to smell the year turning. I want to feel at one with nature and harvest wild produce from the earth, not buy perfect plastic punnets from Sainsburys.

I hand out empty ice cream cartons to the children and tell them to fill them. We pick along an overgrown path, getting stung by nettles and pricked by thorns. It’s warm and I’m wearing shorts and a T-shirt, forgetting that Mum and Gran wore long sleeves each year. We leave the path and climb over a stile to Parliament Piece – a grassy square of land where Henry III held parliament during the Second Barons’ War in 1266. Islands of bushes punctuate the pasture, their branches laden with berries hanging in heavy clusters. The girls get picking, pulling off the fruits with stained fingers.

We’ll be finished soon, I think. Just ten minutes more.

Then Saffy drops the bombshell,

There’s a cow over there.

I walk round the bush, and yes, a Friesian cow has just entered the field. I say cow, I mean bullock. I say bullock, I mean herd of. No reassuring udders swing from the beasts’ underneaths. This never happened in Mitcham. I get out my phone and ask in a tweet Are bullocks dangerous?

Don’t worry I say to the girls. They’re not interested in us. Just carry on picking.

I almost believe it myself.

But they are interested. They walk straight over and stand five metres close. And even though they’re the good Lord’s animals and all part of the ‘countree’ experience, I’m not feeling at one with nature at all.

Really I say. No worries. Ignore them. They’ll go.

They don’t.

A large bullock lumbers up and stands within touching distance. It watches us, expressionless, without moving its head. A kind of Fifty Cent stare. The girls whimper. I grab their hands – and the blackberries; I’m not giving them up now (the blackberries not the girls, obviously not the girls) – and head round the other side of the island, but it looks like the cows learnt something from the troops back in 1266 and they’ve adopted a pincer movement; we’re blocked in from both sides.

I consider climbing into the sprawl of brambles, but ‘shorts’ is all I’m saying. Also, I’m not sure if my girls have the stamina to outlast the bullocks in the event of a siege. I grip the girls harder and pull them off through the herd looking straight ahead and praying they don’t attack. We reach the stile alive and I take a celebratory photo of the herd to upload to twitter, but it doesn't look menacing enough so I delete it.

At home I don’t hang the blackberries over the bath; we need the bath for showers. And I don’t attempt to make jelly; I don’t have a spare sheet. I do empty the blackberries into the sink though. I do remove stowaway stalks and leaves. I do boil them up with sugar and lemon in a large silver pan and test the temperature with a brass thermometer. And I do spoon the jam into squeaky clean sparkling jars lined up on the draining board. And the next morning we spread autumn on our toast.

Read last month's post: Vintage Shop

Emma is a columnist and feature writer for Liberti Magazine.

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