It's a strange phrase - an embarrassment of riches - and actually comes from an obscure, eighteenth-century French play entitled 'L'embarras des richesse', written by the Abbe d'Allainval, but it seemed to sum up the hedgerow I saw in the English West Country the other day.

What was otherwise a lowly and humble partition between fields was dripping with black, lustrous jewels. Entire cliffs of blackberries shone in the autumn light - indeed the hedge was more burdened with fruit than any I'd ever seen before and for a moment the very blackness of its rustic visage seemed ridiculous.

But not for long. I took to relieving the hedge of its load in a trice - though, pick as I might, I couldn't put much of a dent in the fragrant, juicy curtains that smothered thorn and branch alike.

As I gathered so I reflected upon other blackberry-flavoured, autumnal hikes that I've enjoyed in northern France, Germany, southern Holland and in various American states, as well as Canada. And my on-the-hoof culinary reflections caused me to conclude that this is the very best blackberry year that I can recall.

Try describing the sweet, succulent, end-of-summer flavour of the blackberry and you'd have to rely on the adjectives of colourful wine writers to come up with something even close. Except, of course, they often state that a wine has blackberry over or undertones, so perhaps I've embarked upon a mission impossible here. We all know what they taste like anyway, I'll just remark upon how different the berries can be in flavour from one hedge to the next.

That could be because there are lots and lots of different blackberries. In fact there are reckoned to be no fewer than 41 different species of bramble growing wild in the UK alone, although there seems to be a difference in opinion as to whether there is one true blackberry with many aberrant forms, or many distinct types.

Anyway, the name of the wicked, barbed and evil mother bush is derived from 'brambel', or 'brymbyl', signifying prickly. The bramble's first claim to fame occurred in ancient Greece where blackberries were considered a remedy for gout. In some parts of England the blackberry was known as 'scaldhead,' though the reasons why the name came about are pretty diverse.

It could be to do with indigestible, over-ripe berries causing a condition that used to be called 'scaldhead' in children who ate too many. Or it could be derived from the curative effects that the leaves and berries have in treating this malady. It may even have come from the fact that the leaves were once applied to relieve scalds. In Cornwall, crawling under a bramble-bush was once thought to give protection against all sorts of horrible skin problems, from boils to blackheads.

And all over Europe in days gone by, people would gather blackberries only at certain times of the moon's cycle when they were supposed to give protection against evil omens.

So much for the folklore, but what about the reality of using these delicious berries today? Apart from sweetening an autumnal hike they can, of course, be used in many ways, either preserved or cooked, sweet or savoury, all of which will bring that unique end-of-summer flavour to the table.

My grandmother, who was a baker's daughter, used to treat us with the ultimate in 'comfort-food' puddings after she'd been out among the hedgerows at this time of year. It was a classic English dish; a Yorkshire pudding filled to the brim, spotted dick-style, with blackberries, dusted with castor sugar and eaten with clotted cream or ice cream.

My own small problem with the succulent black orbs is how to turn them into jam. Well, it's not really a problem, more of a niggling frustration and I bet many amateur chefs will share my chagrin. It occurs thanks to a somewhat tight-fisted reluctance to go out and buy a packet of pectin.

'The juice of a lemon will set the jam,' say various recipes. 'Put in a chopped apple with its skin.'

But four times out of five this advice fails to set my ruby red preserve. Not that I mind too much because I use the runny stuff in cooking. A spoonful or two does wonders to any sauce that is about to accompany meat. Liquid blackberry jam also boosts a marinade with all the panache of port.

However, you know what cooking is like. The challenge is to get it right.

In my case I feel such a fool when my six-year-old daughter goes to spread her bread and butter with a jam that flows like blackberry soup. So it's my ongoing mission to find a guaranteed method of adding muscle to my jam without resorting to a packet of pectin. If I don't find the setting secret soon my daughter will resort to the shop-bought jars and I will be defeated.

In the meantime, chef Nick Coiley, of the highly acclaimed Agaric restaurant in Ashburton, on the edge of wild and lonely Dartmoor, has supplied us with a couple of delicious seasonal blackberry recipes.

Nick says: 'Blackberry sorbet is a very simple recipe that can be made even if you don't have an ice-cream machine. Just freeze the sieved fruit, then put it in a food blender and freeze again.'

Blackberry sorbet
750g blackberries
200g caster sugar
Juice of half a lemon

Cook the blackberries gently with the sugar in a stainless-steel pan until it is a mush. Purée with a blender and push through a sieve. Check for acidity and add a little sugar if necessary. Chill well, churn and freeze.

Apple and blackberry parfait
'This is a delicious way of using up a glut of apples,' says Nick. 'It's similar to an ice cream, but no churning is required and it is very easy to serve, straight from the mould, or sliced from a lined loaf tin.'

1 kilogram of eating or cooking apples, cored but not skinned
100g blackberries
55g sugar

Put the fruit in a pan with a splash of water, cook to a purée, then sieve and chill.

For the meringue:
150ml of egg white
175g caster sugar

Whisk the egg whites and slowly add the sugar until the mixture has a firm consistency.

600ml double cream mixed with 150ml blackberry liqueur

Fold the three mixes together until well combined, then pipe into moulds, or a loaf tin lined with cling film. Freeze and remove just before serving. If necessary, warm the moulds slightly to remove the parfait.

Nick Coiley is chef-owner of Agaric, 30 North Street, Ashburton, Devon
Tel: 44 (0)1364 654478

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