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Urban growing inspiration: Picking blackberries

Writer, academic and Bristol resident Bernie Munoz shares her joy of the free fruits of the season in our latest blog post. Bernie was one of the contributors to a podcast, Held in Common, celebrating Bristol’s communities – many of the stories focus on how food can bring us together, even in these times when we have had to be physically apart.

The idea of collecting free food from nature has become a radical political standpoint, unimaginable for most of us born and raised in the era of supermarkets, without an allotment, a kitchen garden, let alone a farm. But animals around us make the idea of a self-sustained city appealing. I have observed seagulls tapping with their feet and listening attentively for worms under the grass in College Green. Pigeons eating cherries in Castle Park. Foxes catching mice in Royal Fort. Wasps eating apples in Pill’s orchards. Swifts hunting mosquitos in Leigh Woods’ puddles. If city creatures manage to get along, why can’t we do the same?

The first step is reclaiming the lost knowledge of what, when and where to find naturally grown food in our surroundings. We don’t need to be experienced chefs from trendy restaurants to find seasonal delicacies. I have been impressed by parents from St. Michael’s on the mount primary school collecting elderflower in summer… to make cordial in their bathtubs! Or wild garlic for pesto picked by BRI nurses during their spring lunch breaks in the shady path on top of the hospital. I remember one teacher from St. Matthews’ playgroup chanting ‘know your mushrooms’ like a mantra whilst collecting giant puff ones during a summer morning of an away day in Leigh Woods. Or a friend going on a bike ride for a nettle hunt for her vegetarian lasagne recipe. Although there are walks provided by local experts in the arts of foraging, I am tempted to get a copy of the 70s “Food for Free” by the acclaimed naturalist and journalist Richard Mabey.

The cover of Mabey’s bible presents a humble bunch of blackberries, as a recognition that the ultimate best start for enjoying free food is picking blackberries. Around our flat located in inner Bristol there are many that don’t appear to be reclaimed, except by me and the insects. With a plastic container I rummage the prickly branches in search for those little black gems. Picking blackberries becomes a kind of meditation. Their slight resistance signals that they are ready to let themselves go. Although my fingers get purple and I cannot avoid a couple of scratches in my arms, blackberries reward me with their sour-sweet greatness. They also confront my ambition. Accepting that there will be some out of reach is part of the experience, as well as collecting only the ripe ones, leaving the latecomers for another day.

I come back home carrying a full container in my hands. Whilst stirring the pot of blackberries and sugar under the fire, the smell brings the memory of helping my mum stirring the big pans of jam in the summers of my childhood in Chile. As an immigrant in Bristol, I think about the circle of history that connects me with those European emigrants of the 19th-century who brought blackberries to the south of Chile to plant in their nascent farms donated by the Chilean government, displacing indigenous people from their land. Although blackberries worked as natural fences, their expansive nature has threatened for centuries native ecosystems. The politics of blackberries is then intertwined with the prickly story of Chilean colonisation. But this story doesn’t stop me for making purple jam in my kitchen. A recycled jar of blackberry jam has become the perfect present to express that I have missed my friends during lockdown. I also make syrup for juice, purple smoothies, violet ice-creams and muffins that congregate my children at the breakfast table of this pandemic summer holidays.

Barton Hill Settlement’s The Network partnered with local storyteller, Polly Tisdall to create the Held In Common podcast. You can listen to the first series of Held In Common on the Barton Hill Settlement website – all episodes are also available on Spotify.

For tips and inspiration about how to get growing, whether you have a garden, an allotment, a balcony or a windowsill, see the #BristolFoodKind Growing Food at Home webinar with Sara Venn of Incredible Edible Bristol. Visit Bristol Food Network for more information and resources on Bristol’s Good Food response to the pandemic. There are also more resources relating to cooking on the Bristol Food Network website.

#BristolFoodKind is a collaboration between Bristol Green Capital PartnershipBristol Food NetworkBristol City Council and Resource Futures. See our #BristolFoodKind food waste highlightsgrow your own highlights and support local food highlights.