There are quite a few runs of pretty good wild blackberry hedges around where I live in Donegal and as the roads are quiet enough too, they don't get infused with exhaust fumes so much.
But this year, while nosing around a few old back roads I hit the jackpot and found a good quarter-mile of the biggest, juiciest, most bountiful blackberry bushes I've ever seen!
I parked up the car and pulled out the wee bowl my daughter, Lily, had taken with us just in case we found some of these luscious fruits of the forest. It turned out that I needed to use the basin I had in the boot of the car since the last cooking demo I had done! There were blackberries as far as my eyes could see - I was like a wee boy again - smiling to myself as we picked the berries, eating almost as many as we picked! They were so perfectly ripe they almost fell off their husks into our hands.
I was reminded of when my brother and I used to stay with our aunt, Nora Boyle, a few miles out of Donegal town, for two weeks during the summer months, so that Mum could have another room for the bed and breakfast guests. Nora is a great baker and instilled in me a lot of the older Irish recipes that I still love to make. She grew fruit and vegetables at home, baked every day, dried Dillisk on bedsheets in the garden and used to send us out picking blackberries so that she could make her apple and blackberry jam to put on to the yummiest homemade treacle and gingerbread ever.
We'd spend half the day away up fields and back-roads, with our cousins, picking and eating the juicy wild berries until we were sore!
I'm a great believer in 'smell' and how it can trigger memories and transport you to a particular point in your life with the deadliest of accuracy. Well, for me, the smell of blackberries means 10 years old, on holidays, "in the country".
The smell of fresh ripe blackberries is something so heavenly and unique as to enchant even the most distinguished wine connoisseur's scent glands. When it's said that there are "notes of Blackberry" in that Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 or whatever, well they probably haven't had the chance to stick their sniffer into a hand-picked bucket of the real juicy blackberries, just off the 'vine'!
Anyway, so Lily and I picked just under 3kg of these large, shiny, blackish-purple berries in about 40 minutes! On the way home I was wondering what to make first, a crumble, a tart, just jam, some chutney... but I decided to make a blackberry variation on the classic Irish apple cake of pastry bottom, apples and sugar, sponge topping.
Blackberry Madeira pie
You'll need a 10-inch pie tin. Preheat your oven to 170°C.
- 200g plain flour
- 100g butter
- 75g caster sugar
- 1 medium egg
- a little cold water
Madeira Sponge Mix
- 100g butter
- 100g caster sugar
- 2 medium eggs
- 125g self-raising flour
- 1/2 tsp vanilla essence
- a little milk
- 500g blackberries
- 4 tablespoons caster sugar
- 2 tbls. honey
- 2 tbls. orange juice
Wash the blackberries gently, with cold water, in a sieve and let them drain while you make the rest of the pie.
For the pastry, rub the butter into the flour until it's like breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and mix in. Break in the egg and pull the pastry together using a little cold water if needed. Refrigerate.
For the Madeira, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add one egg with a tablespoon of flour and beat well until smooth. Add the 2nd egg with a little flour and beat well until smooth. The little bit of flour helps to stop the mix from curdling as you mix in the egg.
Add all the flour and mix in well. Add the vanilla essence and mix in. Add a little bit of milk to bring the Madeira mix to a dropping consistency.
Grease the pie tin with a little butter and dust with flour. Roll out the pastry and line the tin. Press it in gently and trim off the extra bit.
Fill the lined tin with the blackberries and dust with the caster sugar.
Spoon the Madeira mix over the top and using the back of a spoon dipped in cold water gently smooth out the mix to fill all the gaps.
Bake in the pre-heated oven for approx. 40 minutes or until the sponge is firm to the touch and golden brown.
Heat the honey and orange juice together, for 20 seconds, in a cup in the microwave and brush this glaze over the warm pie.
Stand back and see how long you can wait before you start eating it! Enjoy.
See www.irishfoodguide.ie for more from Zack.
* Originally published in 2013, updated in May 2023.