Blu Aubergine Blog


One autumn in the early aughts, I headed down to Charlottesville, Virginia to see a football game at my alma mater, UVa. I saw many old friends that weekend and one in particular, a guy from Mobile, Alabama, was asking me detailed questions about living in Rome, and my everyday life in Italy. As we walked from the stadium into town for drinks, I remember him positing this question to me: "Do y'all have blackberries in Italy?" As a chef, my first thought is of course food. So my answer was "Well yes. We have blackberries, raspberries, strawberries -- delicious wild berries unlike what you find in supermarkets over here." I remember he looked at me with his head half-cocked, trying to read my expression to see if I was joking, and understanding that I was not, he simply walked ahead of me and started a conversation with someone else. I was confused by the exchange, until hours later, when I realized he was asking me about smart phone technology in Italy, not produce. Oops.

But the truth of the matter is, even today, someone says "blackberry" and I think immediately of the luscious fruit. I have fond memories of picking blackberries on Ponza, after swimming in the piscine naturali ("natural pools") created by funky rock formations on the northwestern coast of the island. The brambly bushes lined the road above the pools, and the berries were our inky reward after the steep climb up the dusty foot path.

In fact, these delicious blackberries, fragrant from the late summer sun, are not berries at all. They're technically, botanically, considered an aggregate fruit: composed of small drupulets, the blackberry is a collection of seeds derived from the plant's flower, enclosed by flesh and an outer membrane. But that's just a technicality. The good news? Blackberries contain numerous antioxidants, phytochemicals including the all-important polyphenols, flavonoids, salicylic and ellagic acids (which fight against cancer), and dietary fiber. A recent health research report placed blackberries at the top of more than a thousand antioxidant-containing foods consumed in the U.S. They're also high in Vitamins C, K, and the essential mineral manganese.

As a fruit, blackberries are versatile in both sweet and savory dishes. They're great as is, tossed in a salad like the one pictured, with freekah (a Middle Eastern grain), mixed greens, herbs, and a blackberry vinaigrette. Speaking of that vinaigrette, you can infuse vinegars with blackberries, strain the fruit, and have the flavor for weeks after the season is over. You can also pickle the berries in a light brine with herbs and use them in salads or with rich meat dishes, into the fall. I love duck dishes with fruits and berries. Blackberries pair really well with figs in savory dishes, and can round out your September summer-into-fall cooking, deliciously.

Blackberry upside-down cake with
blackberry-white chocolate mousse
But most of all, I love blackberries for dessert. They're the perfect sweet ending -- maybe even to a meal containing blackberries throughout every course. A simple bowl of blackberries with fresh, organic whipped cream is a beautiful thing. A favorite of mine in recent years is the blackberry-bottom cake, at left. I paired it with a blackberry-white chocolate mousse and blackberry gastrique, with fresh blackberries and mint.
Coconut tapioca pudding with
blackberry-buttermilk ice cream

Blackberry cheesecake
Another favorite iteration is my coconut-tapioca pudding with blackberry-buttermilk ice cream and fresh blackberries, with a dusting of dried coconut flakes. Obviously, blackberries pair well with dairy: the creaminess of the milk-based products is a great foil for the dark, bright floral and sour fruit notes of the blackberry. Blackberry panna cotta and creme brulee are great ways to transform the blackberry into dessert, and beautiful too -- the purple-black becomes anything from bright royal purple to a pale lilac when paired with dairy. One of my all-time favorite blackberry desserts I made was a blackberry cheesecake, beautiful in its simplicity, and again pairing cream cheese and sour cream with the berry (though ricotta and mascarpone would have been just as delicious, with an Italian bent). I mixed a blackberry puree into the cheesecake base, and topped the cake with a sweetened sour cream spread and more fresh blackberries and some just-picked mint leaves. Rustic perfection.

And now, since we just lost the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney on August 30th, I wanted to share one of my favorite poems of his. The first line here, of course is "Late August" -- but since the summer took its sweet time getting here this year, the season is extended into September, and we're the beneficiaries of an Indian Summer and lovely weather in which to enjoy our blackberries a little bit longer.

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
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, 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.

- Seamus Heaney