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6 october 2019

Like many of the Reaktion Edible series, Heather Arndt Anderson's Berries must begin with definitions. Berries, as word and idea, are similar to nuts in that they exist as horticultural, culinary, and cultural categories that mostly fail to overlap. Anderson explains that technically a berry is any fruit that contains a collection of seeds encased in pulpy flesh and sealed with a soft skin. Tomatoes are berries; eggplants are berries. Melons qualify, so do citrus fruits, and even bananas, whose wild ancestors, at least, were full of seeds.

But strawberries are not berries: their seeds grow outside the skin. Elderberries are drupes (containing single seeds inside their fruit), and caneberries (black-, rasp- and their allies) are composites of many drupelets. Drupelet is a word. As with nuts, where it turns out that only hazelnuts among the common snacks are true nuts, the only true berry in the American-supermarket berry section is likely to be the blueberry.

Sensibly, Anderson gives up adjudicating berry boundaries and writes about everything that we call a berry. Though they are important foodstuffs, berries fall intriguingly across the divides between wildness and cultivation, forage and the marketplace. A substantial percentage of berries consumed, worldwide, are still picked fresh for immediate use, often from common or unmanaged land. In this, berries resemble greens, which can frequently be had for the taking and do not travel well. Unlike most commercial foods, berries can be acquired in the wild, grown in gardens, picked by the consumer at farms, or bought in markets. They are an adaptable commodity.

I remember going out with a colander once, in the suburbs of London, and picking a nice heap of blackberries from some scraggly canes growing in an untended traffic island. Someone intoned Englishly from the other side of the street: "Are you sure that anyone is allowed to just pick those?" In fact I wasn't, but I assumed that some immemorial rights of way gave me as much of a right to those blackberries as any other Englishman, or American tourist for that matter. There's something democratic about blackberries, and they are unlikely to experience the tragedy of the commons, as they seem to grow back all the thicker for being picked.

Anderson's book balances lore about the supermarket triumvirate (strawberries, caneberries, blueberries) and a host of berries less familiar to Westerners. She writes about currants and gooseberries, cloud- and lingonberries, mulberries (another "false" berry), goji, açai, serviceberries, and salal. Anderson includes several recipes, none of which I made. Most are for preserves and drinks. She has one for a blueberry yoghurt coffee cake which I can fix as a thought experiment and looks delicious. But I'm trying to lose weight right now.

Anderson doesn't treat many cultural references to berries, aside from folklore. My mental register of songs pulls up a couple of berry songs ("Strawberry Fields Forever," "Blueberry Hill") but they're not really about berries. Wild Strawberries is a famous Bergman film, but I don't really remember the wild strawberries; I think they appear as an image once, but I don't know what the heck they had to do with anything. There are few berry still-lives in the canon of Western art (though Anderson reproduces an attractive display of strawberries from a 15th-century French book of hours).

Poems, though – there are a few famous berry poems, though Anderson doesn't get to them (and to be fair, they're not really in her remit). Robert Frost captured the expertise involved in foraging, in "Blueberries":

I wish I knew half what the flock of them know
Of where all the berries and other things grow,
Cranberries in bogs and raspberries on top
Of the boulder-strewn mountain, and when they will crop.
"Blackberry-Picking," by Seamus Heaney, takes the fruit from unripe hardness all the way to rot in a few lines. Galway Kinnell, in "Blackberry Eating," muses on the "silent, startled, icy, black language / of blackberry."

But Sylvia Plath wrote the greatest berry poem, "Blackberrying," and it is among the greatest poems in the English language. The poem begins with "nothing, nothing but blackberries," but by the time she has picked her fill and observed flies so thick on the ripe fruit that she guesses "they believe in heaven," there is nothing left of them, and the poem ends in an astonishing absence, as the speaker comes suddenly into view of the sea:

nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.
And it seems right that the homeliness of blackberrying should have led her into the sublime.

Anderson, Heather Arndt. Berries: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2018.