How to Embrace an Overlooked Berry

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Holly A. Heyser


Mulberries. Until recently, a mere mention this tree would get me going. I hate mulberry trees. They'll conquer your yard and are nearly impossible to kill. Mulberries can send out suckers in all directions, sprouting new trees even if you chop down the main trunk. What's worse, those that do fruit produce boring, low-acid fruit not worth eating.

Such was my belief for years. I had a mulberry problem in my yard when I lived in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and it was about that time when I got it into my head that the berries were no good. I can't exactly remember why, other than I must have eaten some very, very ripe fruit.

These days, as I rehab my torn Achilles—still weak after five months—I've taken to walking around my neighborhood more. Last week I detoured into a little park near my house. I'd been there before, and had not noticed much worth remembering; a few good oaks, but that was it. This time I heard starlings congregated in a corner of the park. They were on a tree.

It was a mulberry tree, and it was loaded with berries. What the hell, I thought. I was in mid-walk and it couldn't hurt to pick a few for a trail snack.

Now there is this great episode of The Simpsons where they flash back to when Homer and the town drunk, Barney Gumble, were in high school. Barney did not drink at all then, and was set to attend Harvard University. Homer brought over some beer. Barney demurred. Finally, Homer convinces him to drink one. Barney's eyes light up. He shouts, "Where have you been all my life?"—and finishes the rest of the six-pack.

I felt like Barney. These mulberries weren't at all insipid. No, they were tart and sweet and irresistible. And I am betting no one knows that this tree exists, tucked in a quiet corner of a little park.

Ever get one of those "I've been here before" moments? That's what happened to me as I was eating those mulberries. Unlike most of my déjà vu moments, however, I can remember the details of this one. When I was a boy, I used to play in the woods behind my elementary school in New Jersey, and right at the edge of those woods stood a mulberry tree. Put me there right now and I can walk you right to it, if the tree still lives.

Looking back, I am sure lots of people knew this mulberry, but at the time it felt like the secret larder for me and my friends—in between "playing Army" or some such, we would gorge ourselves on mulberries, which I remember being ripe just as school was ending in late June. The day after my discovery, I returned to the park with a plastic container and picked three cups of mulberries in about 10 minutes. I also saw that more would be ripe in a few days.

Mulberries don't all ripen at once, and they ripen from a light crimson to a deep purple with reddish undertones. Mulberries are always redder than blackberries. And the trees are easy to recognize: they are the only thing in North America that looks like a "blackberry tree." The trees have a light-colored bark and lightly serrated leaves with prominent, light-green veins.

There are several varieties of mulberry in the United States, including a native American mulberry. Colonists brought over the Chinese white mulberry centuries ago because we thought it might be a good idea to try to raise silkworms, which love these mulberries. Sadly, the worms all died. The trees did not. And by all accounts, the fruit of the white mulberry does indeed suck—no acid at all. I have never eaten one, however, so tell me if your experience is different.

As you might imagine, mulberries are super high in Vitamin C, reasonably good for iron, potassium, and Vitamin K, plus they'll give you a little fiber, too. Mulberries are also high in resveratrol, the substance present in red wine that experts say helps fight cancer. But who eats berries for the vitamins? We eat them because they taste good. Or at least I do.

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Holly A. Heyser

My initial urge was to just eat these berries in a bowl, with cream. Berries and cream is my favorite breakfast in the world. But that wouldn't make for much of a blog post, would it? So I thought about something to do with the berries. They seemed a little acidic—go figure, given my prejudicial thoughts about mulberries—for ice cream, so I decided on mulberry sorbet.

I often spike my sorbets with some alcohol to improve the texture, so I added some homemade elderberry liqueur to the mix. It was really good.

Mulberries have a flavor all their own. Flavors and textures are tough for me to describe, but I'll try: mulberries are denser and a little chewier than blackberries, which they most resemble. They are not as tart as blackberries, and my main flavor impression is a kind of high sweetness, like an alto to blackberry's baritone. If blackberries are a Cabernet Sauvignon, mulberries are a Pinot Noir.

I returned to the tree five days later and picked another three cups' worth. This time I wanted enough for mulberries and cream, plus something else.

I'd been thinking about making a panna cotta for a while, and ran across David Lebovitz's recipe. Because I can't leave well enough alone, I decided to infuse the cream with some lemon verbena, which I have growing in my front yard. This would be my first-ever panna cotta, so I was unsure about what it should be like; I've only eaten them a few times. David's recipe is for eight, so I halved it, using one packet of gelatin for two cups of cream.

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Holly A. Heyser

It came out a little too solid for my taste; I think I will reduce the amount of gelatin next time, and my recipe for lemon verbena panna cotta now reflects that. I was much happier with the mulberry-key lime compote I paired with the panna cotta.

I had some Mexican key limes hanging around from my adventures with Mexican fish cooking, so I added a few to come up with my version of a mulberry compote. I really like the zing of the limes with the tamer mulberries, and the whole thing cuts through the richness of the panna cotta well. The verbena and key limes act as the bridge between the two.

There are lots of other things I could do. I probably could do a mulberry ice cream. A mulberry sauce for venison or hare would be excellent, too. Do you have a favorite use for mulberries?

More on mulberries:
Mulberry, cherry, and pistachio clafoutis, from Cannelle et Vanille
Mulberry honey cake, from Eli Cooks
More on mulberries, from The Kitchn

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Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.
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