Blackberry and Apple Crumble

If we had some bacon we could have bacon and eggs but we’ve got no eggs.

That First World War catch phrase came to mind as I was contemplating an idle wish to make blackberry and apple crumble. I imagine a Bruce Bairnsfather cartoon with Old Bill and Alf or Bert grousing about the food while the whizz bangs fly overhead. Here’s Old Bill  asking The Eternal Question about the plum and apple jam:

The sub-title of the postcard is “When the ‘ell is it going to be strawberry?” Front line soldiers often received inferior quality tinned goods in their rations and plum and apple was the symbol for second best. This jam – it was said – was often extended with turnips and marrow.

It was probably Tickler’s jam. In 1914 Tickler’s of Grimsby secured a £1m contract for supplying the army with plum and apple jam. Jam was cheaper than butter and easier to pack; bread and jam was a ration staple. And –  waste not want not – empty jam tins were sometimes packed with guncotton, scrap metal and a simple fuse and used as makeshift grenades – improvised explosive devices earning the name “Ticklers artillery”. 

In this next card Old Bill is cooking – or rather burning something – over a coke brazier.

And then there’s that time when it’s even worse and morale hits rock bottom. No bacon, no eggs, no jam, nothing to cook and nothing to cook it with. And leave’s been cancelled. One would like to win the war but how can one?

When one would like to start an offensive on one’s own Recipe for feeling like this: Bully biscuits, no coke, and leave just cancelled.”

The Children Do Their Bit

In 1918 children were recruited to pick blackberries for government jam. Schools were asked to close so the children could be set to work. At the Willingdon School in East Sussex the official school logbook records include these two entries:

That’s a lot of blackberries. And no doubt the families were delighted with the extra money. Not to mention the children spending afternoons outside eating and picking rather than being in school.

Looks like blackberrying was a common cause for absence from school. This is Clark County, Kentucky, August 1916.

So – lots of procrastination to get in the way of the idle wish to make blackberry and apple crumble. First problem – no blackberries and no apples. The best solution would be to go pick them. But no apple tree and no brambly hedge. Have to go shopping and who ever wants to do that?

But – eventually – fruit secured and time to cook.

How to Make Blackberry and Apple Crumble

The especially appealing part about a crumble – apart from the eating of it –  is that it’s hard to go wrong. I can follow directions but I prefer not to and crumble – like curry and  chicken – is very forgiving. So here’s a recipe should you ever get the crumble temptation and you’ve got the makings. And the best think is you can substitute pretty much every ingredient. No blackberries? Try peaches. No apples? Try pears. Or go without. Etc.


For the filling

two large Granny Smiths or other cooking apples. Bramleys if you can get them because they stay sharp and go all fluffy when cooked.  apples never seem to be available

1 largish punnet of blackberries

4 oz sugar, preferably demerara (because it has a crunch)

1 lemon

For the topping

6oz plain flour

3 oz butter

1 oz demerara sugar (or use what you have)

2-3 oz mixture of porridge oats, seeds and chopped nuts


Peel, quarter, core and slice the apples  Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice over the apple and mix well. This adds flavor and keeps the apples from going brown

Layer the apples, blackberries, and sugar in an ovenproof dish

Put  the flour and room temperature butter in a large bowl and then use your fingers to rub them together until it looks like large breadcrumb

Add the oat/seed/nut mixture and the sugar and mix well.

Spoon the crumble topping evenly over the fruit.

Put in a pre-heated 400 degrees F oven for about 45 minutes – or until the topping is beginning to brown and the mixture bubbling through with blackberry and apple juices

Cool for a few and then serve with ice cream, custard or fresh cream. You could also drizzle with a little blackberry brandy.

Blackberry brandy? Got some extra blackberries? Here’s how to make that.

Look at the red! Blackberries picked before their prime. Tasteless.

You might as well cook the blackberries because you can’t find blackberries that actually taste like anything blackberryish. That’s been my experience anyway and of course that sets off nostalgic yearnings for the blackberries and the blackberrying of yesteryore.

My childhood was spent is easy reach of  hedgerows luxuriant with brambles and late summer meant scratched arms, stained hands and purple mouths. And baskets and buckets and bags of fresh wild blackberries.

Hard to find a decent blackberry in the shops or even in the farmers’ markets. They look nice – all shiny and mouthwatering as if bursting with flavor but they actually taste like nothing – not sweet nor sharp and certainly not, well, like blackberries.

The same is true of blueberries and strawberries. Here’s Robert Graves:

Wild Strawberries 

Strawberries that in gardens grow 
Are plump and juicy fine, 
But sweeter far as wise men know 
Spring from the woodland vine. 
No need for bowl or silver spoon, 
Sugar or spice or cream, 
Has the wild berry plucked in June 
Beside the trickling stream.

Given the sensual delights of picking and eating blackberries it’s not surprising that the poets have reported on this.

And for an indulgence of blackberry poetry see the next post.

As for the blackberry and apple crumble – it turned out well. Now, alas, all gone.

 Children Blackberrying, Anna Airy 1882–1964

Colorized photo: “A soldier of the 102nd Battalion, 11th Canadian Brigade, 4th Canadian Division enjoying the blackberries he had just gathered in Bourlon Wood after it had been captured. Early October 1918.”


  1. Phil:

    I am SO going to make that blackberry brandy.

  2. I agree that blackberries, even those picked off the vine, are bitter. So for the brandy I opted for my childhood remembrances on my uncles farm, to go for raspberries instead.

    Promise to share a glass with you around xmas.

    On an educational note, I spent a week in Asheville, NC for a week this summer, in part to learn more about Black Mountain. I didn’t know that John Dewey was on their Board.

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