A short run through of the various parts of Bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.) that can be used as food, and a unique process you may not have heard of before regarding the use of the leaves.
I just want to quickly take you through this amazing plant, bramble or blackberry, Rubus fruticosus agg., which we all know because most of us have gathered it in our childhood.
So, technically if you’ve picked bramble or blackberry fruits when you were a child, you’ve been a life-long forager.
With the fruits, we can make jams, we can make blackberry vinegar, we can make wine with them. Blackberry liqueur. There are lots and lots of ways of using blackberry fruits. You can even use them in a junket.
But today what I want to talk about are the little-known parts of the blackberry that you might not have come across before.
So, if you actually go into the little nibs, in between where the leaf is attaching itself to the main stalk where the other fruits are branching off.
In the very early springtime, you get this tiny little feathery bud coming out, a leaf bud, and it’s silver grey. If you pick them, and sometimes you can get them quite long, wait for them to sprout.
What you don’t want is for the leaf to come out and be open. Pick them and they have delicious coconut flavours. I sprinkle them on salads. But I’m really intrigued by the leaf of this plant, this plant has taught me quite a lot. Plants teach me, okay. Not in some kind of woo-woo way though. They teach me as a result of observation.
One of the things that I found is a plant called rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium), or ‘bomb weed’ if you live in London.
It was one of the first plants that came out after the bombings during the second world war. And in Russia, it’s known as Ivan tea, which harks back to the old Soviet days. , but it’s also known as Koporye tea. The leaf is actually fermented the same way that black tea leaves are fermented.
So, it got me thinking. I lodged that information on the back burner in my brain, and then I went off and visited Myanmar, formerly Burma.
I was visiting a traditional culture there called the Karen. And I met this guy there in one of their markets. It was in the middle of nowhere, and interestingly he had lots and lots of piles of leaves in front of him.
One of them was black tea, that he had gathered, picked and then fermented and was selling. But all the other leaves were forest tree leaves.
Now, in south-east Asia when you forage you’re not looking down at the ground particularly, you’re actually looking up in the trees.
A lot of the food and the medicine comes from the trees. And that’s what he’d done, he’d basically fermented the forest tree leaves and was selling them.
And so I came back again, lodged that observation at the back of my brain. So we’ve got fermenting of plant leaves in Russia, we’ve got it in Burma.
And then I’m up in the north of England one day visiting a friend who originally came from Kenya. I walk into her kitchen and she’s got a pillowcase with a load of bramble leaves, blackberry leaf in it.
And I say to her “Why have you got a pillowcase of bramble leaves hanging over your cooker?”
She turned to me like I was from Mars and said, “Well I’m fermenting them, Robin.” And it was like ah, okay, that’s quite cool. Now we’ve got a third observation where plant leaves are being fermented to make a tea.
So, one of the principles I live by is, if I can validate or observe something three times, then I pay attention a lot more.
So I paid a lot more attention to this. I tried some of my friend’s fermented bramble leaf tea, and it was extraordinary, the flavour profile just eclipsed picking the fresh leaf, or even using dried bramble leaf. Most people simply put it in a pot and pour hot water over the leaves.
This process of fermenting tree leaves and plant leaves, I think is key to bringing out the secret within plants if you’re going to use them as tea.
So, I encourage you to experiment and play. If you’ve seen my blog you’ll see that I’ve experimented with things like beech leaf tea. The beech leaves are picked when in the autumn time when they’re brown, and they’ve been on the tree a long time.
There’s a potential for fermentation going on. Some of those flavours can taste like Lapsang or oolong teas. Some extraordinary tea flavours come through.
So we’ve got the fruit, we’ve got the bramble leaf. The next bit that I want to take you through is actually the shoot that appears in April or May.
Bramble is actually considered an invasive species. We don’t see it as invasive because we love it, we love it for its fruits, we love it for what it does for all the other little bugs and critters and the ecosystem that is around the plant.
Obviously, each plant is part of an ecosystem and everything is symbiotic. Funnily enough, so are we, humans, although we tend to think and use our language as though nature … Somehow it’s out there, it’s like us, nature. Well, we are nature. So we are part of it.
Personally, I see my place in the ecosystem as a grazing animal. That’s all I am. I might think that I’m quite bright along with the rest of the human species, but we can’t be that bright because we’re screwing up mother earth, aren’t we?
So, as we are part of the ecosystem we are symbiotic with it.
Bramble being an invasive species grows up to three inches a day. There’s an old Zen master called Bash? who said if you want to meet bamboo, go sit with bamboo.
So when I say sitting with plants, what I actually mean is to sit with plants and to observe. And from observe, make hypotheses. That’s how I discover about the world.
So, the shoot you see in front of you is pretty big (watch the video above), and you might think “hang on, I’m not going to stick that spiky bit of green plant matter in my mouth, it’s going to destroy it”.
But it’s not, because if you look you’ll see that those thorns are actually very, very soft, and that’s the secret to picking the bramble shoots, is to pick them when those thorns are not wounding.
So they’re very flexible, very soft, and what you do is basically you’ll cut off that shoot, you’ll peel it. You’ll either eat it raw, or you can steam it and put butter and lemon juice over it.
They are truly delicious, and if you think how problematic bramble can be for some gardeners, cutting the shoots off all the time is basically containing the plant.
Remember what I said about my place in the world. I see humans as grazing animals, that is all we are. But I think it’s a really nice way to reclaim our connection with the natural world.
So, I would really love you today, or tomorrow, after watching this video, to get off the screen.
It’s my intention with everything I do, whether I post a photo up or I post a video up, or I post an article up… that you actually take it beyond your head, and that you go and reconnect with the natural world around you.
I don’t care whether you live in a high rise flat in the middle of London, you can get out and find a park or you can find a cemetery. You can find green space, and get engaged with plants today.
It’s really really important!
Reading about them, looking at pretty pictures on social media, watching videos like this. They have a place, but it’s not the work.
The work comes when we go outside and we engage with the beautiful green beings, and we bring them back into our kitchens and we start playing with them as food, and maybe, if we’re so inclined, to learn their medicine as well.