Foraging is a term that is on everyone’s lips these days. Wild garlic, mushrooms, nettles and elderflowers are now seen as fairly standard ingredients as the search for free food has become fashionable. However growing up in the 1980s, for me wild food meant only one thing. Brambles, lots of them. Their sweet tartness always drew me into the midst of those thorny twines to find the elegant purple berries. The nicks and scratches were always worth the red juice covered face and hands that would greet Mum when I returned home.
Brambles are the flavour of a Scottish autumn, that comforting season when we reach for jumpers and scarves, as days get shorter and the weather turns cooler, while nature turns leaves into bursts of yellow and orange, adorning trees with ripened red berries as if undeterred by the promise of winter. Autumn reminds me of childhood walks through woods and along hedgerow, their miles of oak, chestnut, hawthorn and thistle stretching all the way to The Clyde, always looking forward to the walk back home, with the smell of coal and wood smoke hanging heavy in the damp air as we approached the promise of a hearty stew.
In Scotland, it is the season of harvest, the larder comes alive with roots, fungus, orchard fruits, while the kitchen becomes a place of long slow cooking, and the comforting scent of warm, sweet rich fruity desserts.
My everyday cooking mostly comprises savoury food; lentil soup and venison stew is a perfect autumn meal to me. However, when I occasionally venture into the realms of sweetness, rekindling a childhood passion for desserts, there is only one that I long for; crumble, always with custard, never cream or ice cream. Crumble for me is a dish that speaks of Scotland and is particularly suited to our climate, the fillings changing with the seasons. If you ask most Scots of a certain vintage what their favourite crumble is I’m sure you’ll always get an answer; gooseberry, apricot, raspberry, or my particular favourite, rhubarb. In autumn however it has to be apple and bramble. The apples hang heavy on the trees, the boughs straining under the weight of ripening fruit with eager hands waiting below while the brambles, the purple jewels of my childhood hidden behind thorns, glisten expectantly under the morning dew.
The ingredients in this apple and bramble variety are all essentially ‘native’ or at the very least heritage flavours which have been grown in the country for centuries. The apples can be any variety you have available, although I prefer to use eating apples due to the inherent sweetness meaning less sugar is required. For this recipe I used Discovery which are a little eating apple that grows in my parents garden, but you can use cooking apples if you prefer, you will simply need to increase the quantity of sugar and cook the apples in the initial stage for a bit longer. For the topping, salted butter is my preference, its mineral tang works well alongside the sweet and tart flavours of the fruit, but this is a personal choice of course and you can use unsalted. With crumbles I find it really is all a matter of taste and a recipe is merely a guide rather than an irrefutable set of instructions. For an extra crunch on top I use toasted pinhead oatmeal and hazelnuts. Oatmeal is such a wondrously versatile Scottish ingredient and while hazelnuts may not be readily available in Scotland these days, they are indigenous, with evidence of hazelnut farming in Colonsay as far back as 3000 years ago. This truly is a heritage Scottish dish which sums up the flavours of autumn wonderfully and if it is made after a little foraging of your own then all the better.
Apple and bramble crumble
200g plain flour
140g cold butter
110g dark demerara sugar
30g pinhead oatmeal
2tbsp chopped hazelnuts
3 medium eating apples (or 2 cooking apples) cored but skin on chopped into 2cm chunks
1 tbsp dark Demerara sugar
- Place the apples in a saucepan with a splash of water and cook over a medium heat for 5 minutes until they start to soften slightly;
- Meanwhile rub the butter into the flour and sugar until you get a consistency like breadcrumbs trying not to overwork, you want it to remain light;
- In a small pan toast the oatmeal and chopped hazelnuts for a couple of minutes over a medium heat ensuring it doesn’t burn;
- Pour the apples into a large ovenproof dish such as an ashet, spreading out so that there is only one layer. Pour over the brambles, pressing down to keep the single layer then sprinkle over the sugar evenly;
- Spread the crumble layer evenly onto the top of the fruit then add the toasted oatmeal and hazelnuts, again ensuring an even spread;
- Bake in the oven at 200ºC for 20 minutes until the topping is golden brown. Serve with custard, cream or ice cream.