I’ll get to this recipe in a moment – these basil and goat’s cheese crostini, topped with a simple balsamic red onion and blackberry compote, are creamy and sweet and crunchy and all kinds of other things, and I have a lot to say about them. But first I want to talk about the blackberries themselves.
A few weeks ago, I was invited down to a blackberry farm in the middle of the stunning Kent countryside (and it was a sunny day too, which made everything look even more beautiful) to learn all about how these blackberries are grown. They’re Driscoll’s Victoria sweet blackberries, and you wouldn’t believe how different they are to the ones you can find in a bramble bush at the side of the road. They’re so much sweeter, and they’re enormous. It’s really hard to get the scale across in a photo, but these sweet blackberries are definitely two-biters.
I’m never sure how interesting this kind of visit will be – how much can there be to say about a blackberry? – but I genuinely found the visit absolutely fascinating. I’ll share a little bit about what I learned, and hopefully you’ll agree!
The sweet blackberries are grown in two different ways on the farm – in an enormous greenhouse, and also in the field, in polytunnels. The greenhouse helps to extend the blackberries’ season, so even more can be produced.
First, we checked out the greenhouse. It’s just under a hectare in size (that’s around 2.5 acres, aka really flipping huge), and inside there are rows upon rows of blackberry plants – around 5,500 plants, in fact. And I can’t even keep a bunch of parsley alive in my garden.
It was fascinating to hear how much technology goes into creating the ideal environment for growing the perfect blackberry – the whole greenhouse is controlled by a computer. Among other things, it controls the greenhouse’s irrigation (and even detects exactly which nutrients the soil is most in need of on any given day), opens and closes the windows in the roof to control the strength and direction of the breeze, and makes sure the temperature is just right for the blackberry plants. The farmers even keep track of the insect populations within the greenhouse, so if there are too many of a particular species, they can introduce the correct predator to keep things balanced. The amount of care and thought that goes into growing these plants is immense!
Next, we looked at the plants in the field – another 12 hectares! The sweet blackberries are handpicked straight into their punnets, and can be on the shelf in a shop within 24 hours.
The blackberries grow from the middles of these pretty white flowers, which I’m not sure I ever knew before. The centre of the flower gradually develops the drupelets of the blackberry, and then the petals shrivel away as the blackberry becomes darker and darker. Here’s one at two different stages:
The main thing that struck me about our visit to the farm was just how passionate the farmers were about their blackberries. They may use technology to help them produce the ideal fruit, but it takes a seriously talented person to program everything perfectly, and you could tell that they truly cared about producing the best fruit possible. I love hearing people talk about something they’re truly passionate about, whatever it may be.
If I’m honest, blackberries aren’t a fruit that I’ve bought often in the past – I often think they can be a bit sharp. But these sweet blackberries have 100% converted me. The flavour is absolutely gorgeous, and they’re great for snacking – there’s no stone or peel to dispose of, just grab a handful out of the fridge and be on your way.
Of course, I couldn’t really share a recipe for ‘handful of blackberries’, could I? (I’ll do it quickly for you now though – 1. Reach into fridge. 2. Grab blackberries with hand. 3. Eat.)
So instead I made these creamy basil and goat’s cheese crostini, topped with a simple balsamic red onion and blackberry compote. They’re elegant, they’re super simple to make, and the flavours are amazing together.
To start, toast some slices of French bread drizzled with olive oil until they’re nice and crispy (<– this alone is amazing). Spread them with creamy, soft goat’s cheese and fresh basil. Resist eating it just yet (this is the hardest part). Then top each with a good dollop of the red onion and blackberry compote.
The compote is a really simple mixture. It’s just red onions, cooked down until they’re nice and soft and sweet, with a dash of balsamic, and a few of those juicy blackberries. Cook it all together, and that’s it. ‘Compote’ is possibly not the right word, but I couldn’t think what else to call it, so just go with it. The slight acidic tang of the balsamic is just perfect with the sweet onions and berries.
A few more sprigs of fresh basil for a little pop of colour, and dig in!
These basil and goat’s cheese crostini would be so good for an elegant party – stick them on a platter and let people help themselves. They’re just as good cold as they are warm, so you can make them an hour or two in advance with no problems, and just spoon on the compote before serving.
So what do you reckon – have I convinced you to keep your eyes peeled for some sweet blackberries?
Basil and goat's cheese crostini with balsamic blackberry compote
- 1 tbsp oil
- 1 small red onion, sliced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 150 g (~ 1 cup) sweet blackberries
- 250 g soft goat’s cheese, roughly crumbled (~ 1 cup when crumbled)
- Few sprigs fresh basil, roughly chopped (plus more for garnish, if desired)
- Black pepper
- 1 medium-sized crusty baguette
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Heat a dash of oil in a saucepan, and add the sliced red onion and minced garlic. Cook over a fairly low heat until the onion is cooked to your liking - cooking it for longer will result in a softer, sweeter mixture, so I'd recommend leaving it at least 15 minutes, stirring regularly.
- When the onions are cooked, add the balsamic vinegar and blackberries, and cook for a further 5 minutes, until the blackberries have cooked down. Set aside to cool.
- In a bowl, combine the crumbled goat's cheese and chopped basil with a pinch of salt and pepper. Mix well. You can add a dash of extra virgin olive oil to loosen it up if needed.
- Cut the baguette into thick slices (I like to cut on a slight diagonal to give larger pieces). Brush both sides of each slice lightly with olive oil, and place under a medium grill (broiler) for a few minutes each side until golden brown and crispy.
- Allow the toasted bread to cool for a minute or two, then spread with the basil and goat's cheese mixture. Just before serving, top with a spoonful of the balsamic blackberry compote, and a few more fresh basil leaves if desired. Best served at room temperature.
Note: Nutritional information is approximate, and will depend on exactly what ingredients you choose. Information above is for 1/4 of the recipe (depends how big you make them, but something like 2 pieces each).