If there is an ideal place in which to celebrate autumn, and everything nature brings with it, then Yorkshire is perhaps it. There are forests in abundance that are impersonating traffic lights with their leaves, turning yellow around the edges with a rim of burnished red. The breeze that whips your face as you climb a steep hill covered in heather has a bite to it that you wouldn't have felt a few weeks ago. Best of all, the gastronomic evidence of autumn's arrival is on display wherever you go, from the butchers advertising a brace of grouse or local pigeon to the blackberries that adorn stretches of roadside for miles, glistening and begging for someone to brave their thorny garrisons and pick them. As Shakespeare observed, blackberries are indeed plentiful. It would be a shame not to succumb to the bushes' proffering, and to leave such a versatile ingredient untouched.
I succumbed. And you can tell, because my hands are covered in scratches. Not only scratches, but little red lumps that itch annoyingly - I think nature was being a tad unfair when she decided to always place a thick patch of nettles in very close proximity to the juiciest-looking blackberries. Still, at least I have two big bags of berries to show for my labour.
A slightly less successful quest involved the pursuit of the bilberry. These are like blueberries in appearance, but tarter and more flavoursome - your average supermarket blueberry, I find, more often tastes like a small capsule of flavourless banana than anything deserving of the name "berry", a word that carries pleasant associations of tartness, juiciness and sweetness. Bilberries are rarely cultivated; instead, you find them growing in the wild on small shrubs barely a foot high. They grow best on high ground and heathlands. Indeed, I was driven for fifteen minutes uphill this morning to "Crocodile Rock", a rock overlooking the Dales and so called because it looks like a crocodile with its mouth open.
The reason behind this being that my mother had been waxing lyrical about bilberries, and their superiority to blueberries. She bought some in the deli up here last year for some extortionate price, but knew they were to be picked up by this rock. I was sent to harvest said berries if I could.
After identifying the bilberry bushes using Google Images - they are everywhere, amongst the heather - I spent about half an hour sure that this couldn't be the right bush, even though the internet was adamant. There were no berries to be found. She had told me they are quite hard to spot, lying just underneath the leaves, but I combed through about fifty bushes and found nothing. I was just giving up, sure it was too late in the season (August to September) to find them, when I saw this:
This, at least, was proof that the bilberry was not a fictional construct designed to test my patience. I was a little bit elated, I must admit (tragic, isn't it? I really must get myself one of these life things, one of these days). Sure it could not be a one-off, I scoured the bushes again.
Another slight leap of the heart and spirits.
I imagine normally these bushes are festooned with berries, when the season is in full swing. I was clearly too late in the year; it took me two hours of pained scouring to gather barely a handful of berries. But the sheer joy and satisfaction when I saw one gleaming on the underside of a twig...I take pride in my little tupperware box of bilberries. There are probably enough to fill something about the size of a mini mince pie. The kind you get at Christmas drinks parties. I did feel bad having to tell my mother that the huge bag of berries I came home with did not, in fact, contain bilberries, but blackberries (I found loads on the way home) - her face fell when I presented the optimistically-sized box with its scattering of purple jewels.
I've told her that she had better find some use for them, however small-scale, because I do not want my two hours of braving the cold, getting scratched hands, ferreting around in bushes and getting very odd looks from dog-walkers to be in vain. I think the £4 she paid for a bag back last August was a bargain, now that I know how much sheer effort it takes to harvest these elusive berries.
As for the blackberries, I think a pear and blackberry strudel, and a batch of apple and blackberry jam (using windfall apples from the tree in our garden back home) are on the cards.