By: Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
It’s that time of year again. The blackberries are getting ripe, and Nicole made me my first cobbler of the season last week.
I say “my cobbler” because, even though anyone was welcome to a piece, I’m the blackberry fan in the house. Blackberries are easily my favorite fruit. They’re sweet, tart, and – with the seeds – have just a tiny touch of bitter to help balance that sweet and sour. But it’s only the wild blackberries that have this depth of flavor.
I once had a girlfriend, a city girl, who excitedly brought me home a pint of blackberries from a Whole Foods grocery. Store bought blackberries were the only kind she’s ever known, and she’d heard me say they were my favorite fruit on some occasion and filed it away. She was very pleased with herself, and the berries were gorgeous. Large and dark, I’d never seen blackberries so big or so pretty – or tasted any so flavorless. The sentiment was sweet at least (even if the berries weren’t) and I appreciated it. But they weren’t the same at all as the wild blackberries I’d grown up on. They were flat, one note, and mushy compared to the compact, firm flavor bombs we get here in eastern Kentucky. If this had been my only blackberry experience, they definitely would not be a favorite.
Thankfully, however, I grew up with real wild blackberries growing along the backyard fence and spent my childhood summer’s filling ice cream buckets that my Nan would turn into cobblers and cakes. That is, the ones that didn’t go directly down my gullet.
It’s the kind of thing I’m thrilled my children get a chance to experience too. Last year my toddler wasn’t quite sure what to make of blackberries. Just a little over a year old, he’d take one if I bit into it first, then sort of chew it and drool it back out. I tried to only give him really ripe berries, but it may have still been too tart for him.
This year, that isn’t an issue for him. Not only did he eat probably one of every four blackberries I picked, I had to stop him from picking and eating berries that were still red or just turning purple and not ready to pick yet. The tartness is apparently no longer a problem.
Our older boy isn’t much of an outdoorsman. He prefers exploring fantasy worlds through computer games to walking the fence lines and picking blackberries, and that’s okay too. But he still got excited when he saw his mother and me bagging berries for the freezer, and had to have a few.
There’s just something about wild blackberries.
The first year I missed out on picking them I tried to tell myself it was just the seasonality that made them special. They were just berries. No big deal. During my second year in the city I repeated that lie. I kept it up summer after summer, every time I’d start to feel homesick for Kentucky, until that girlfriend brought home the beautiful but flavorless berries.
The French have a word for the unique character that a landscape imparts on the flavors of a wine – terroir. It takes into consideration the soil, the elevation, the climate, the precipitation; everything that goes into giving a grape its flavor.
Maybe it’s the terroir of Appalachia. Maybe it’s the genetics of the wild berries. Maybe it’s their compact size, and all that concentrated flavor gets diluted in a big, cultivated berry. But the blackberries taste better here, and it isn’t just the novelty of their seasonal availability. We have something special, and I’m grateful I get to share it with my boys. (Almost as grateful as I am for their mom’s skill with a cobbler.)
Jeremy D. Wells can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org