Ripening blackberries near the Irish coast. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

“Ready? One, two, thr…,” Andy starts.

Seriously, bud? We’re on a bicycle built for two, on an Irish country road with a 25 percent incline and a hundred other peddling sightseers who don’t know which side is the right one to drive.

“Oh, Honey. Look!! There are brambles at the top of the hill. Let’s just push the bike up there and have a few berries before we give it another go,” I say, hatching a plan to avoid bloody ankles and marital tension.

These brambles, a general term for 80-some varieties of prickly, scrambling, fruit-bearing shrubs native to Ireland, stretch over a stone wall running alongside the low road from Kilronan — where the ferry from mainland County Galway dropped us off on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands — to Dún Aonghasa, a prehistoric fortress perched on a sheer sea-cliff over the Atlantic. They’re blackberries, warmed by the sun and bursting with sweet, dark juice. As we eat them, we take in a view of variegated green pasture cascading down to a farmhouse next to the sea.

Blackberries, a tasty snack and a marriage peacemaker when traveling the back roads of Ireland. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

This was the second time Irish blackberries kept things copasetic between Andy and me as we ambled along the country lanes of western Ireland in unseasonably warm and uncharacteristically sunny September weather. The first was during a 6.3-kilometer (that’s one way, folks) trek along the Barna Road to a pub on a pier that promised a better view of Galway Bay than the one we could more easily take in from the balcony of our Airbnb in the Salthill neighborhood of the Galway City. Around the 5-kilometer mark, my jet lag hanging over, I accuse Andy of setting a pace that disregards my comfort level in favor of landing us in front of the pub’s flat screen in time for the Arsenal v. Manchester United football match. It was he, then, who pointed to the hedgerow for relief. A handful of plump, sweet berries kept my hangry at bay and my feet moving.

Brambles in Ireland are everywhere because they propagate wildly, in several ways. They reproduce sexually with other flowering brambles with the help of native pollinators. But they also can self-pollinate. And they reproduce asexually when the tips of the briars touch the ground and take root. They also have been known to hybridize with other types of brambles specifically suited for one area or another. Birds and mammals eat the berries and spread bramble seeds far and wide, and brambles aren’t fussy about the soil in which they can thrive. While the Irish work to keep brambles at bay in their gardens, in the countryside, they are permitted to flourish because they provide forage food and habitat for a wide range of beings.


Taking a walk to collect blackberries is a more economical prospect than buying a half pint of cultivated ones that costs three Euro in the grocery store.

There are few legal restrictions on foraging berries in Ireland – other than they should not be picked on private property without permission, of course. But a few practical ones apply, such as not picking ones in high traffic areas because they’ve been exposed to automobile exhaust, and it’s best to pick berries above the mark where an average-sized dog might be able to make its mark. As a good member of the ecosystem, don’t take every ripe berry from every bunch. Leave some for those that come along after you.

Blackberries are in season in Ireland from late July to October, depending on the weather. According to Irish folklore, blackberries shouldn’t be picked after Michaelmas (September 29th) because they will be bitter due to the devil spitting on them so as to have the dark, juicy fruit all to himself. But a recent study by researchers at the Irish Botanical Garden in Cork found that with climate change, brambles are blooming earlier and bearing fruit later as air temperatures rise.

The seasonal extension could be good news for blackberry lovers in Maine. Historically, a hearty varietal cousin to the Irish brambles has grown in the wild, but mostly in southern Maine.

David and Jean Hay Bright have blackberries in the mix at their small PYO berry operation in Dixmont in central Maine, about 25 miles southwest of Bangor. While the brambles at BrightBerry Farm also include red and black raspberries, customers this summer picked through a 120-foot row of blackberries — a hearty variety called Illini and an unknown variety transplanted from a house the couple used to own in town. Blackberry picking wrapped up the last week of August.

“Interest was high so we planted another row last year — Sweet Arc — and hope to get some berries from that new planting next year,” Jean Hay Bright said.


When our conversation turned to how changing weather patterns might affect future harvests, Jean Hay Bright said the best weather for blackberries in Maine is when seasonal temperatures are normal, and sunshine and rain alternate.

“Not good are late spring frosts killing the blossoms, or (having) so much rain the pollinators can’t get out and do their thing,” Jean Hay Bright said. Since blackberry brambles are perennials, existing rows, selected for their cold-weather hardiness, could struggle to adapt to future weather changes. “But warming seasons do present the possibility of planting varieties that would not survive a typical Maine winter,” she said.

If you have a chance to pick blackberries, Jean Hay Bright said to use flat pint containers to transport them home because piling them too high will squash the ones on the bottom. Freeze them whole, spread out on a baking sheet until they are rock hard as you would blueberries, before consolidating them into a container.

Then do as the folks on the British and Emerald Isles do and pack them with apples into a cake. This recipe works with both fresh and frozen blackberries.

Blackberry and Apple Cake with Irish Whiskey Hard Sauce

Blackberries and apples are a quintessential pairing in Ireland and the United Kingdom in early fall, when both apple trees and bramble patches are ripe for the picking at the same time. British chef Nigel Slater has written that this autumnal match “brings with it memories of country lanes and orchards, of bramble scratches and shinning up fruit trees.” It’s a combination that needs little else than a warming undertone of vanilla. Since the cake is not overly sweet, I serve it with a hard sauce made from sugar, butter and Irish whiskey.


Makes one 8- by 8-inch square cake

4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla paste
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup milk
2 tart apples, medium size, peeled, cored, and sliced into 1/8-inch slices
6 ounces blackberries, rinsed, about 1 generous cup

2 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla paste
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons Irish whiskey

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease an 8-by 8-inch baking dish.

To make the cake, melt the butter in a 4-quart saucepan placed over low heat. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the granulated and brown sugars. Add eggs, one at a time, whisking after each addition. Whisk in the vanilla.

Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl. Add half to the pan of wet ingredients and stir just to combine. Add half of the milk and stir just to combine. Repeat this process with the remaining flour mixture and milk. Gently fold the fruit into the batter. Transfer batter into the prepared baking dish.


Slide the baking dish into the oven. Bake the cake golden brown with a few cracks, and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, 45-55 minutes. Cool the cake completely.

To make the hard sauce, combine the butter, vanilla and confectioner’s sugar in a small bowl and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon to combine. Slowly add the whiskey until it becomes a smooth sauce.

Server slices of the cooled cake with a generous drizzle of hard sauce.

Local foods advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is the former editor of Edible Maine magazine and the author of the 2017 “Green Plate Special” cookbook about eating sustainably. She writes the Press Herald column of the same name, but this year is on sabbatical in Europe with her husband. She can be contacted at:

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