by Sarah Valentim
“What will come from the briar but the berry?” says the old Irish proverb. Berry picking once played an important role in Ireland, back in the days when you couldn’t find pretty berries packed in a hygienic plastic box in Tesco.
The tiny bilberry, or fraughan (from the Irish fraochán) played an important role in Irish tradition, and they are associated with the last Sunday of July, known as “Bilberry Sunday”. It is associated with the Celtic festival of Lughnasa, and it involved people gathering on hilltops to gather the berries and it also involved a courtship. It presented the single lads an opportunity to meet the lasses and find a spouse. The girls would bake the berries into a cake and offer it to their chosen lad in the evening. This tradition has long died off, but with recent studies on the health benefits of purple berries and a resurgence of interest in foraging for wild food, more and more people can be found picking berries in the countryside and hills in the summer.
The bilberry or fraughan, is the first berry of the summer to ripen. It’s the wild European version of its bigger, although certainly not tastier, American cousin blueberry. They can be eaten raw or cooked and incorporated into tarts, desserts, jams, or drinks. They can be found in a variety of habitats, but they mostly grow in acid woodland, hillsides, heathland and mountain slopes. The plant is small and often obscured by other plants, but will not be overlooked by the trained eye. The small berries, however, require some time to find and collect. They often grow under the leaves and many go unnoticed.
Some berries were more valued than others though. Another Irish saying “ní fiú sméar san fhomhair é” – “it’s not worth an autumn blackberry”, suggests the fruit of the brambles were not so appreciated, but this generous plant has much to offer. Rich in vitamin C, this common berry needs no introduction. It grows everywhere in thorny, tangled branches and yields a much heavier crop than the cherished bilberry. The most common way to preserve it is as jams or jellies, but they can also be dried, used to flavour vinegars, or fermented into wine. Pick the largest, fully ripe berries only – they should come away easily from the hull. The latest berries are not as juicy but can also be used for jams and puddings.
The wild raspberry isn’t as easy to find in Ireland, but if you’re lucky you might find a few locations where they grow in your area. Raspberries are native to Ireland, but also naturalised from cultivated garden strains. Most people pass them by as brambles, and the plant is very similar although it can be distinguished by its soft thorns and paler leaves. The leaves can be dried and used into tea, it has been used as a folk medicine for centuries. It’s a great herb for women, for painful or heavy periods, and for easing labour and delivery; but it’s also used for gastrointestinal disorders, respiratory system disorders and for heart problems.
You can also find other garden escapes throughout Ireland, such as black and red currants, depending on where you live. They are easy to identify as they look exactly like the ones you find in garden centres.
The wild strawberry is widespread and also needs little introduction. The berries are much smaller than the cultivated version, but packed with flavour! The best way to know where they grow is to look for them in spring, when their white flowers are easy to spot. They ripen from June to August, but can still be found sometimes as late as October. They can be eaten raw or cooked, but one of my favourite uses for them is to blend them into a smoothie with other wild berries, a banana and some almond milk.
Moving from berries to cherries, there are other fruits that you can find in the Summer, higher up in the trees! Prunus avium, our common cherry, can be found on the edges of woodlands and in limey soils. If you don’t know of any wild cherry trees in your area keep an eye out for those white spring blossoms in April. The fruit is not as sweet as the cultivated species, so I recommend you process them into jams to sweeten it, although I love to eat them raw from the tree, but only the fully ripe ones. I don’t mind bitterness so they rarely reach the basket when I’m picking them, but you can make wonders with them if you have more self control than me.
So grab your baskets and get out there, gather the best of the fruits of the summer – and you might even be courted and find a spouse!