It was a verb that stopped me in my tracks last Friday: was.
‘The best Irish poet since Yeats, Heaney was 74.’ And then the sinking realisitation of exactly what that past tense was meant — the death of Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s most beloved poet. One week on, the nation is still reeling from the loss.
Heaney often wrote about food:* oysters, potatoes, grain, sloe gin, milk, mint, butter, blackberries. Scones ‘rising / to the tick of two clocks’. Butter being churned into ‘coagulated sunlight’. Fodder ‘falling at your feet, / last summer’s tumbled / swathes of grass / and meadowsweet’. ‘I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.’ Threshed corn that ‘lay piled like grit of ivory’. Oyster shells that ‘clacked on the plates’ and whose ‘tang / Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb’. Mint ‘Growing wild at the gable of the house’ that ‘spelled promise / And newness’.
Food is part and parcel of what I love best about Heaney’s poetry: the way he could shine a light on ordinary moments of quiet, everyday domesticity to reveal their beauty and grace, like these lines from ‘Mossbawn: Sunlight’, where the act of baking is elevated into an expression of love:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.
And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.
If you are at all literary minded and live in Ireland, chances are that you associate the end of August or the first sighting of fat, ripe blackberries in the hedgerows with Heaney’s poem ‘Blackberry-Picking’:
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
We headed down to a nearby lane two nights ago and picked a heaping bowl full of wild blackberries. But what to do with them? I had to make my mind up quick, for ‘Once off the bush … the sweet flesh would turn sour’:
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
I turned them into jam that night, suspending the sunny September evening in darkly gleaming jars — a way to make them ‘keep’ after all, even when so much else is fleeting.
Wild Blackberry Jam
Makes about 1 litre
A few tips before you begin: You’ll be working with a big pot of boiling sugar, which can burn badly. Keep kids out of the kitchen (or make your jam after they’ve gone to bed) and be mindful of your own safety too. Don’t be tempted to lick the spoon for a little taste!
When making preserves, you need to use spotlessly clean, sterile jars, lids and rings (if using a Kilner/Le Parfait type of jar). If you have a dishwasher, you can simply run everything through a hot cycle. Otherwise, wash everything in hot, soapy water, rinse well, then place the jars and lids on a baking tray in an oven heated to 140°C (285°F) and keep them there until you’re ready to use them.
1kg (2lb) blackberries
1kg (2lb) caster sugar
juice of 1 large lemon (about 100ml/3.5 fl oz)
Place a saucer in the freezer for testing the jam later (have a look at this one-minute video on how to test jam using the wrinkle test).
Gently wash the blackberries, discarding any stems. Tip them into a large preserving pan or a non-reactive pot along with the sugar and the lemon juice. Cook over a medium heat until the sugar dissolves, stirring frequently with a long-handled spoon, then raise the heat and bring everything to a boil. Keep at a steady boil for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Start testing the jam after 10 minutes. Place a teaspoonful of the jam onto the freezer-cold plate and push it with your finger — when it wrinkles up, it’s ready. Remove from the heat and skim off any foam that might still be on the surface.
Pour the jam into warm, dry, sterilised jars (see above) to within a few millimetres of the rim and seal immediately. Store in a cool, dry place and use within 2 years.
* Here are some of Heaney’s poems that deal with food if you would like to seek them out. His book Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966–1996 is a good place to start: ‘Digging’, ‘Churning Day’, ‘The Barn’, ‘Fodder’, ‘Mossbawn: Sunlight’, ‘Oysters’, ‘Sloe Gin’, ‘The Milk Factory’, ‘Mint’, ‘When All the Others Were Away at Mass’.