Guest Post for Manna by Esme McAvoy
There’s nothing like a spot of blackberry picking to trigger a little childhood nostalgia. Of the days when my big sis and I, aged nine and seven, would sneak off ‘round the block’ to the strictly off-limits row of terraced houses behind our own.
There, a measly patch of overgrown brambles served as our bit of ‘wild’ in sanitised suburbia. Every year, come early September, that tiny jumble of brambles would faithfully produce a generous crop of the biggest purply-squishy blackberries. We’d disappear ‘blackberrying’ after school, returning for dinner with stained hands and faces and inky black-blue blotches down our school pinafores but without a single berry to show for our feverish picking. On the doorstep we’d brace ourselves to face a cross Mum who, I’m sure, secretly just wanted to pick them too.
Twenty-odd years later, going blackberrying hasn’t lost its mischievous charm. Except this time, I can pick them at leisure in the autumnal sunshine of Hampstead heath - North London’s very own expanse of ‘wild’ that, at this time of year, is awash with berries. After a happy afternoon of blackberry picking, I scrubbed my purply hands before heading off to waitress at manna. Chatting to owner Roger, we started discussing what to do with a glut of wild blackberries. After coming up with plenty of pudding possibilities, I get the thumbs up to pick more - this time for the restaurant.
I head off with a willing friend in tow and, after a dip in the Hampstead ponds, we get to work, picking and talking and sampling the berries in a woodland part of the heath.
Bramble-scratched but triumphant, I arrive at manna with my bike basket laden with enough berries to hopefully make something delicious. Instead of a telling off from Mum, manna’s lovely chefs cheerfully examine my berry bounty and then get to work on some blackberry-themed puddings.
Manna’s doyen of vegan desserts, Wayne, whips up an orange-scented cheesecake with hazelnut crust and topped with a purply-black compote made of the wild blackberries. Blackberry sorbet sweetened with just a touch of maple syrup and an ‘Autumn Platter’ of a vanilla and pistachio Bundt Cake served with, yup, more blackberries and baked peach drizzled with a cointreau-spiked cream find their way onto the daily specials.
Back home, I stew my own little potful with sugar and Bramley apples to make my first ever batch of homemade jam.
And the heath keeps drawing me back. After a lazy Sunday afternoon lunch with friends, I’m not quite ready to head home and turn my bike towards the heath instead. This time, with the late afternoon sun low in the sky and a definite autumnal chill in the air, I start blackberrying. After spending the last year in South America, where, in Colombia and Ecuador at least, the length of a day remains pretty constant year-round, I’d forgotten the beauty of autumnal light. The sun arcs lower in the sky and, come dusk, it takes on that special quality, burnishing all it touches gold. I offer the berries to curious passersby and every single child, hoping they’ll soon sneak off like my big sis and I and pick some berries of their own.
Check manna’s specials online or just ask your waiter next time you stop by to find out if Hampstead Heath’s blackberries picked by my own bramble-scratched hands have made it onto the menu. I’ll do my best to pick as many as I can before the season comes to an end