Blackberry picking in the wild

with Lahari de Alwis

(Ethical Sourcing Manager-Raw Materials)

"The Albanian sun warms you as you walk up the green hills.  The grass is long and soft around your feet, but you have to watch out for the occasional bramble thorn reaching out to grab at your legs."

However, today’s excursion requires keeping an eye out for blackberry bushes for more than avoiding the nasty scratches. I am in the mountains around the city of Berat with representatives from our German herb supplier, the Greek trading company, the Albanian herb processor and the local trader to meet the wild harvesters that supply the blackberry leaves that go in to our Twinings blends. Blackberry leaves are one of our “key herbs”, making up the top 80% of our annual volumes, and mainly sourced from wild harvesting in

We meet a group of wild harvesters – they live in the nearby villages. “A 20-minute walk away”, they say and point towards the village, which to my short legs looks more like an hour’s trek, but then, I have never been a fan of walking uphill…  Their day starts in the late morning once the sun has evaporated the dew off the
blackberry bushes dotting the hillside. 

The bushes are not difficult to identify, given they are taller than
most other growth around them and the spread of small white flowers spotted across them.  The leaves need to be harvested once the flowers have bloomed but before the fruit appears – this ensures the best flavour in the leaf. 

Secateurs or scythes are used to cut off the branches with the most leaves and collected on a spread laid out to dry the leaves, careful to keep at least 40% of the bush remaining for sustainable regrowth.  The collection is left out to dry naturally for 3 to 4 days before being sold to the local trader. “We discuss with the other
families who are collecting and once we have enough volume as a group, we call him (the trader) and he comes with his truck to collect it.” Discussion of price is made at that point, leaving little bargaining power with the harvesters who have already done the work and need to sell on the herbs they collect.

“I just saw a viper”, the local trader announces as he walks by, prompting the rep from the processing company to jump and hurry back to the vehicle.  She’s not taking any chances in the long grass and I am sympathetic, but I’m hoping my tactic of stomping around scares of any offending serpents, buoyed by the fact that the harvesters claim never to have had an incident of a snakebite – a fortunate fact, given that the nearest hospital is 2 hours away, with their village only having a small clinic. 

The more difficult aspects of wild harvesting are the searing sun as they work longer in to the day and the thorny branches of the blackberry.  One lady pulls up her long sleeves to show some painful scars; sleeves that protect from the thorns and sun, but magnify the heat of exertion. The local trader has supplied them with gloves and some tools, as well as the large spreads they use to dry the leaves. Drying the leaves is another uncertain aspect of the work – should rain arrive during the following 3 days, the entire collection is ruined.

The collectors take pride in telling us the nuance in harvesting various herbs

– blackberry is not the only crop they focus on – these hills are full of variety and the different harvest periods allow them to work throughout the summer and in to the start of Winter.  Knowledge to differentiate one plant from another, to know the best time and method in which to harvest and the most valuable information – the hidden areas for some herbs are all in the minds of
these harvesters.  Sadly, it is clear that the population of harvesters is an aging one. Most of their children have headed to the cities or to Western Europe for better opportunities and pay.  Last year, there were not enough harvesters
and as a result the price of blackberry leaves rose significantly. 

Suppliers and buyers have responded by looking to farmed
blackberry leaves as an alternate, though it cannot provide the ‘naturally organic’ product, and could result in deforestation for farmland.  It is one way to reduce the percentage of leaf in the mix that is not blackberry, due to the occasional other plant that gets thrown into the mix and is missed in the manual check.  I hear the only praise for the past communist region when the discussion of weeds comes up – during that era, men were sent out to weed out the harvesting areas, leaving the herbs to grow better and giving a better harvest for the collectors. 

The supplier rep tells an amusing anecdote of when they were explaining to the harvesters about the “toxic plants” that should be removed before drying, due to EU regulations on percentage content of a naturally occurring
toxin.  The harvester had claimed, “this plant is not toxic” and proceeded to eat it to prove his point!

It is sad to think that in a few decades, this concept of wild harvesting may become obsolete.  Not only for the fact that with that we will lose the knowledge and skill of the wild harvesters, but the ecological balance that has been maintained for generations by the harvesting of these herbs.  As I think of the rare pink ground orchid spotted across the hill, I wonder if they will still be able to thrive in this area when the unfettered bramble begins to spread across the land. It will definitely be a much less pleasant mountain trek…

This leads us to the key question:

What can Twinings do to support this industry from which we have benefitted?  Can we support methods to attract youth to
remain in the sector through better pricing for products or through innovations such as the use of drone technology in harvesting?  As we strive for responsible business practices to prevent any negative impact, we should perhaps also consider the positive impact our business could have were we to think outside the box.