Snag a batch of blackberries

The blackberry patch is all barbed and waiting for the picker who's ready to brave the brambles. Prime picking continues through August in much of the United States. Early one recent morning, two friends and I met in a nearby county park to stalk the thornily guarded berries. Having been forewarned of potential snags, I had worn jeans, socks, and sturdy shoes. Not only did we have a long walk, but when we found the blackberry patch we had to sneak between the unavoidable thorns on the berry-laden branches to find our treasure.

The leader of the expedition, being a veteran blackberry picker, had brought a long-handled cultivator. This saved us countless scratches. The cultivator was used to separate the canes from each other and pull them into reach of our eager hands. At least mine were eager until they felt the first snag of a thorn. A word to the wise: Don't let the friendly purple of the berries fool you. One false grab and you find yourself prickling at all exposed parts.

In about an hour the three of us had filled a half-gallon container. Blackberry picking does require a bit of caution. Tugging at unyielding berries causes the ripe berries to tumble down into the tangle of vines. Slow picking produces fewer snags on arms and hands.

Wild blackberries are found throughout the Northern Hem- isphere, growing along hedgerows and bordering wooded areas. Smart berry pickers will scout out the patches in springtime before other plants obscure the brambles. The blackberry canes grow with tousled abandon, creating good hideouts for birds and small wildlife that also find the blackberry a tasty dish. There's keen competition between picker and bird during late summer.

The blackberry has a core that's large and hard and clings to the fruit. So be sure the berries are ripe when you pick them or you'll wind up with the distasteful core, too.

My favorite produce vendor at the local farmer's market has been trying to sell me blackberries for upward of $1.50 for a half-pint (or $24 per gallon!). Commercially frozen blackberries sell for about $14 per gallon. Like any delicate gem, they carry a high price tag. Trailing home with scratched arms and stained fingers, I could easily appreciate the high price these berries command.

Of course you won't have any problem finding ways to do away with your coveted store of blackberries. There are several delicious ways to eat them. They can be baked in pies (solo or combined with other summer fruits), cakes, and cobblers, or they can be preserved in jams and jellies. Those who don't mind the tartness enjoy eating them ``out of hand'' or in a bowl topped with fresh heavy cream.

One unusual and very satisfying way to enjoy them is in a fruit soup. I discovered a recipe for blueberry soup in ``More Fast and Fresh,'' by Julie Dannenbaum, and adapted it to suit blackberries. The result is cool, smooth, and refreshing. It should be served well chilled in ice cold glasses.

Ms. Dannenbaum suggests serving this soup for dessert, but I never delay a good thing. It makes a delicious first course and is a wonderful addition to a summer luncheon to remind your guests that the taste of summer is never far away. For a variation, add 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh dillweed. The dill is a nice accent to the fruit flavor.

Of course, Aunt Myrtle's blackberry cobbler is delicious, but why not try something new? And don't let the thorns or the high price (if you opt to appreciate someone else's hard work) force you to miss this late summer treat. Just savor the taste of summer with every spoonful. Blackberry Soup 4 cups fresh blackberries, washed 2 cups granulated sugar 2 tablespoons tapioca Grated rind of 1 small lemon Grated rind of 1 small orange 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

Place the berries in a large saucepan and fill with water to cover them. Cook on medium-high heat until the berries begin to boil. Cover and simmer until they are soft, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Pur'ee the berries and their cooking liquid in a blender or a food processor. Pour through a fine sieve to remove the tiny seeds. Return to pan and stir in sugar, tapioca, lemon and orange peel, lemon juice, nutmeg, and cinnamon.

Return to heat and stir until sugar and tapioca are dissolved. Remove from heat and cool, tasting to make sure you have added enough sugar. The soup should be pleasant but not too sweet. Chill the soup in the refrigerator. Serve in ice cold glasses.

Makes 8 portions.

The following recipe is from ``Cooking with Berries,'' by Margaret Woolfolk (Clarkson N. Potter, New York). It may even be as good as Aunt Myrtle's. Blackberry Cobbler 1 cup sugar 1/2 cup water 2 cups blackberries, washed 2 tablespoons butter 1 egg 1 cup flour, sifted 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/8 teaspoon salt 2/3 cup milk

Combine water and 1/2 cup sugar in medium saucepan. Boil syrup for 5 minutes. Add blackberries, boil 2 minutes, stirring. Remove from heat. Cream butter with 1/2 cup sugar and egg. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to butter mixture alternately with milk. Blend well. Pour into buttered 1 1/2-quart baking dish. Cover with blackberries and syrup. Bake at 375 degrees F. for about 45 minutes. Yields 6 servings.

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