The curse of Lucifer

I grew up on the North Sea and now I live on the Aegean Sea. There are differences between the two seas: one is mainly grey in colour, the other is blue; one is cold and the other, in the summer, warm; one mostly finishes on sandy beaches, while the other sees her waves often lapping at pebbled and rocky beaches; one creates dunes behind the beach, the other leaves her waves to break on a rocky coast.

Rocks often offer up no more than a few small salt pools or the odd shell, like the Patella depressa. On the other hand dunes may provide home to masses of blackberry bushes. As I child I often used to pick blackberries in the dunes.

Greek islands are not known for their blackberries. Picking blackberries isn’t very popular with the Lesvorian people who gather food in nature (wild pickers) although there are plenty of blackberries to be found on the island. You can even find some real sand dunes at the beach of Kampos, without brambles but compensated by some huge caper plants.

What I really do miss on this island is the small fruit-like berries (like blueberries!) and raspberries. Blackberry is the only fruit whose taste comes near that of those other berries. There are strawberries (not wild ones), but their taste is too wayward to resemble berries. So I have to make do with gathering blackberries at the end of the summer and that is no problem because they grow in many places. They are small, but very tasty. And they are very healthy.

Scientists say that blackberries can reduce the growth of a tumour, that they can lower cholesterol; brambles keep your heart vessels clean and for centuries they have been used to cure a cold. And yes, the ancient Greek did eat blackberries, although mostly to cure gout. So blackberries are terribly healthy.

To pick blackberries is not without risk because bramble bushes have mean thorns that love to stick into your clothes or your bare arms; and, not surprisingly, the parts they have played in different legends and myths have not been so nice either. Like when Lucifer was thrown out of the heaven, he fell into bramble bushes and cursed the fruit.

According to Greek mythology, a similar thing happened to Bellerophon, a son of king Glaucus of Corinth and a grandson of Sisyphus. Bellerophon, just like his granddad, was not a sweet guy. He once run into trouble with the king of Lycia; the king wanted to kill him but knew that the murder could bring him political woe, so he sent Bellerophon on an errand, to kill the fire-spitting monster Chimaera. Nobody expected Bellerophon to do the job or to return alive but Bellerophon got the help of a god (probably Athena) who gave him a golden bridle so that he could ride on the winged horse Pegasus. With the help of Pegasus, Belerophon killed the Chimaera and returned as a hero. His fame made him arrogant and one day he decided that he would fly with Pegasus to the top of the Olympos, home of the Gods. The outraged Gods made the horse prance and Bellerophon fell into some bramble bushes, becoming blinded in one eye. Bellerophon ended his life as a lonely hermit and blackberries have become a symbol for arrogance.

However there’s nothing arrogant about gathering blackberries, or serving fig-with-blackberry-ice cream or a blackberry pie with whipped cream. But while picking brambles one must remain cautious, not only for the sharp and mean thorns, also for the weather. Often in my youth we were attacked by thunderstorms and we had to run home quickly because more than once people got stuck by lightning. Since then I never stay outside when a thunderstorm is approaching.

Now that the last figs are being collected and fat blue-black brambles in their thorny environment are there to seduce you, the last of the summer brings threats of thunderstorms. The Greek mainland has already had plenty of rain but here on Lesvos there have just been light clouds roaming through the sky, sometimes making a small rumble and sending a few drops to the earth. Turkey in contrast can’t be safe for blackberry pickers because often you can see the rain showers fall and in the evenings you could enjoy a fascinating light show created by lightning.

Yes, it’s typical blackberry time, also on Lesvos, and it’s good that the big rains have not yet struck because Greeks believe that figs and blackberries are ruined after a good shower by insects creeping into them. In other countries they believe that blackberries are ruined after the Name day of archangel Michael on September 29, because Lucifer will trample them. Others claim that this happens on Halloween, November first, but I think that is rather late in the year.

Thunderstorms or not, Lucifer or insects, I just pick the blackberries when they’re ripe. They go so well with Greek yoghurt, a reason why I still have not make marmalade or a pie with them. Although I have made a fig-blackberry ice cream: a lovely combination of startling autumn flavours.