Low-Hanging Fruit


Foraging and Feasting on Nebraska Mulberries

By Abigael Birrell | Photography by Ali Clark | Recipe Illustration by Cheryl Angelina Koehler

Mulberry season arrives with a splat. Indeed, it is that abundantly messy quality that makes the mulberry a fruit that is more likely to be cursed than praised. The heavy crop of berries ripens from late spring to early summer, staining streets, sidewalks, shoes and mouths, leaving a trail of telltale purple smears and blue teeth.

Juicy, sweet and abundant are adjectives that come to mind when describing mulberries. But perhaps the defining characteristic is their fragility. The fruit requires a delicate touch to avoid turning it into pulp and so it rarely makes an appearance at the farmers market or grocery store. Because of this, mulberries have achieved a cult status among chefs in the past few years as a fleeting and elusive alternative to more common berry varieties. Fortunately for Nebraskans, the mulberry is not hard to find in city yards and parks or in the windbreaks along farm fields. All it takes is a bit of observation and a willingness to live purple-handed for a few days.

The mulberry is a remarkable tree beyond the delicious berries it produces. Cultivated for millennia, it was called “the wisest tree” by Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder because it waits to bud until the last frost is over. Budding occurs overnight, symbolizing expediency and wisdom in China, where it is called “the tree of life.” There are three main species: white mulberries, which originate in northern China and are used primarily for the cultivation of silkworms; black mulberries from Southwestern Asia; and the red mulberry, which is native to the United States. Mulberries have adapted to a wide variety of local conditions. The trees can grow anywhere from cool temperate regions to warm tropical zones, from sea-level to as high as 9,900 feet above sea level. In fact, mulberries are native to nearly all continents and zones, with 150 published species. They are not at all fussy about the soil they are planted in and can grow 10 feet per year during their early years.

Mulberries are juicy, sweet and abundant, but they are also very fragile. The fruit requires a delicate touch to avoid turning it into pulp and so it rarely makes an appearance at the farmers market or grocery store. Hands stained with berry juice are common.

Humans have found a use for nearly every part of the mulberry tree. The leaves, while primarily known for being the preferred food of silkworms, are used in medicinal teas throughout China and Southeast Asia. The leaves are a good source of protein and vitamins for animals as well and are often used as a nutritious addition to livestock feed. The inner bark of mulberry trees has been used to make paper in many different parts of the world from washi in Japan to tapa cloth in the Pacific Islands. Mulberry fruit is used in many places as a natural dye, turning fibers into a gorgeous, silvery-purple shade. Mulberry wood is soft and springy, making it a valuable material for building furniture, musical instruments and even hockey sticks.

White mulberries were initially introduced into the United States in the 1600s and reached peak production during a period in the early 1800s known as “mulberry mania.” A push to create a domestic silk industry led to vast plantings of mulberry on plantations, first in the Northeast and eventually in the Great Plains. In a strange twist, Kansas was the site of Silkville, a short-lived utopian community started by a Frenchman named Ernest Valeton de Boissière in 1869. The founders of Silkville celebrated socialism and free love and supported the enterprise by producing highly regarded silk as well as cheese and wine. Records show that de Boissière planted 10,000 mulberry trees at the height of the settlement. After cheaper foreign silk imports made domestic silk production unprofitable, the Silkville commune slowly dissolved, but the mulberries continued their spread across the United States, hybridizing with native species.

What is to be done with a glut of mulberries, besides eating them by the handful? There is really no end to the possibilities. Wherever mulberries are found in the world, there are fascinating variations on how to prepare them. In Azerbaijan, they are traditionally steeped in vodka and made into a drink called Tut araghi. In small doses, this powerful, sweet liqueur is believed to protect against heart and stomach diseases. English culinary history has similar examples, including an aromatic cordial made by simmering mulberries in wine, sugar, allspice, lemon peel and peppercorns. After the berries infuse in the warm wine, gin is added and then the whole mélange is left to steep in a crock for a week until it is strained. The cordial mellows over time, turning a rich, festive color, to be brought out for Christmas toasts, when summer is a distant memory. In Iran, some of the largest varieties of mulberries grow, known as “Persian mulberries.” They are slowly dried and then added to a trail mix of nuts and seeds called Ajil. Mulberries’ simple, sweet quality deepens, gaining in flavor, as it dries. The chewy, semi-dried berries are paired with salty pistachios, almonds, dried apricots and roasted chickpeas, turning a humble trail mix into a surprisingly complex snack of sweet and savory. The long, caterpillar-like Pakistani mulberries are enjoyed all over India, where they are commonly blended with a half a lemon and equal parts sugar and ice for a cool, tangy drink that is believed in Ayurvedic medicine to cure several ailments including sore throats and melancholy.

Here in the United States, the native red mulberry was an important part of the larder and medicine cabinet of Native Americans. A common preservation technique involved drying the berries and mixing them with animal fat and seeds to make pemmican, a high-energy snack. The leaves and inner bark were used in medicinal teas.

A dead simple and delicious method for preserving your mulberry harvest is to simmer them with an equal part of sugar until soft. The juice is strained, reserved and then further reduced until it thickens slightly and just coats the back of a spoon. Once you have this syrup, it can be used for any number of recipes. It’s lovely mixed into seltzer water but even better added to sparkling wine for a twist on a Kir Royale or drizzled over crepes or waffles. Chef Alice Waters famously transforms her mulberry syrup into an ethereal purple ice cream.

Mulberry syrup can even be used in savory dishes by eliminating the sugar and reducing pure juice. The concentrated juice makes a wonderful base for sauce for venison or pork. Berries or juice can also be blended into salad dressing for a fruity vinaigrette. And in the case of a true abundance of mulberries, jam, cobbler or pie is an ideal way to use extra ripe and squishy fruit. Pairing mulberries with a slightly more acidic fruit, like plums, can create lively flavor combinations.

But maybe the true beauty of a mulberry is that recipes are beside the point. Nothing marks the return of long days and warm weather like a bowl full of freshly gathered fruit and hands stained with berry juice.

Tips on Harvesting

The easiest way to find mulberry trees in your neighborhood is to look for the telltale purple stains on the sidewalk. To confirm the identification, look at the leaves. The leaves of the black mulberry tree are short and the base is heart-shaped. If the leaves have rounded teeth on the edges, it is either white or red mulberry; white mulberry leaves are glossy while red ones are less so. Looking like a blackberry, mulberries are reddish black and about an inch long. Mulberries are perfect for picking when the fruit has changed from shiny to matte. A word of caution: Unripe mulberries and the milky white sap from any part of the tree have a low toxicity and can cause stomach upset. The easiest way to harvest is to spread a sheet or tarp under a tree and give the branches a gentle shake. To get the high branches, try using a rake. When collecting your harvest, mind the wisdom of Shakespeare who wrote of their perishable nature: “Now humble as the ripest mulberry that will not hold the handling.”

Abigael Birrell is a farm-focused chef and all around bon vivant. She’s thrilled to have an opportunity to share her passion for foraging and cooking with the Edible community in Iowa and Nebraska. When she’s not out hunting for wild foods, she can be found in the garden happily cultivating the tame ones.

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