I remember when the blackcurrants were ripe for picking, they glowed in their skin of purple black. When the sun shone, the Meitheal began. Meitheal is an Irish word referring to the practice of neighbours assisting each other to harvest their crops. The majority of our neighbours had generous gardens and among other things, they grew berries, blackcurrants, redberries, strawberries, raspberries and hairy green gooseberries. Our Meitheal was a gathering of women and children who descended systematically, like locusts on each garden to pick the fruits, starting with the blackcurrants. Every generation was represented and this practice, in itself, represented an incredible sense of community.
We’d sit on upturned buckets, if we were lucky! More often than not the adults, who hadn’t brought their own little stool, had the buckets reserved so we were on the ground and worked our way around the bushes with basin in hand. When buckets and basins were full they were weighed. There was an art to it, no amateur offerings here. The currants must be picked without bruising and without stalks.
The first taste of the currants was a ‘stand still and savour’ experience. Firstly there was the sniffing of the leaves-I loved that then and I still do now. I’d run my hands through the branches, and the waft from the leaves smelt of a sweet dampness and ancient memories. Then came the crunchy little currant exploding in my mouth. I would taste the shininess of the skin and the jelly like centre, Immersing myself in those sensory pleasures; the colour, the smell and the taste would fill me with a feeling of wholesomeness.
There was one little red currant bush in the garden and I really favoured it. I don’t know if it was the light filled little red bubble or the sweetness. I suspect it was because it was the one that stood alone and was different.
Our neighbours and friends worked hard and amidst laughter, tea and the swapping of recipes they got the job done and were prepared for the next garden on the following day.
At that stage the kids were tired and the excitement had worn off so currants were used as missiles, and squished in faces, leaving a gooey purple-green gunk dripping from cheeks and chins. Time to get us rounded up and brought home.
But it didn’t end there! There followed the blackcurrant cordial and the jam! My mouth waters when I think about the cordial my mother used to make as a reward for our work. Purple moustaches were evidence of our impatience for the mixture to cool in the fridge.
The smell in the kitchen of blackcurrants, being stirred by the long, purple wooden spoon as they bubbled in the giant, cauldron-like saucepan, cast spells of nostalgia, never to be surrendered.
Of course every family that had been picking were now jam making so the heady mixture of berries and sugar wafted like a sweet purple cloud above our houses. It was glorious.
I was especially fascinated by the intricacies of bottling. The warm, recycled jam jars,the little wax circles, plastic covers and elastic bands seemed somehow exotic and appealed to my creative side.
Finally, the doorstep of homemade soda bread and butter lathered with the warm jam is indelibly etched deep in my memory bank. Oh what I would give for just one slice!