Text and photographs are © by Ellen Spector Platt & Ellen Zachos, all rights reserved.

Monday, June 20, 2011

what's ripe this week?

Pyramus and Thisbe lived in ancient Babylonia. Their houses shared a wall, and being neighbors, Pyramus and Thisbe knew each other from around the neighborhood. Despite the fact that their parents were enemies (or perhaps because), they fell in love.

From the moment the young lovers declared their intentions, they were forbidden to see each other. They could only communicate by speaking through a crack in the wall that joined their houses. Secretly, Pyramus and Thisbe arranged to meet at midnight, by a spring at the foot of a white mulberry tree outside the city.

Thisbe arrived first, and as she waited, a lion came to drink from the spring. The lion was fresh from the kill, covered with blood. Thisbe ran away, and unnoticed, her veil fell to the ground. The lion picked up the veil in its bloody jaws, then dropped it to drink, and moved on.

When Pyramus arrived, he saw the bloody veil and the lion’s footprints and jumped to the worst possible conclusion. He blamed himself for Thisbe’s death, grabbed his sword, and plunged it into his heart. His blood flew high into the air, onto the mulberry fruit, turning it from white to red. More blood flowed into the earth and was taken up by the roots of the tree, turning the remainder of the berries red.

Soon, Thisbe circled back to the tree. She wondered if she was in the right place, because the berries had changed color, from white to red. When she saw Pyramus, she grabbed his sword, plunged it into her own heart, and with her dying breath swore they would be buried together and that the mulberry tree would henceforth bear red fruit as a tribute to their ill-fated love.

It’s a messy, bloody story and mulberries are a messy fruit. It’s not unusual to recognize a mulberry by the splattered fruit covering the ground under the tree. When I see a splotchy sidewalk like this, my heart skips a beat. Why? Because smushed berries on the sidewalk below mean tasty berries up above.

There are several different kinds of mulberries: black, white, and red. All mulberry fruit start out white. Ripe red mulberries are almost black. Confused? Don’t let that keep you from picking. A mulberry is ripe when it falls off the tree at the slightest touch, no matter what color it is. If you have to tug it off the branch, it’s not ready.

Mulberry fruit look a little like blackberries, but slimmer and smaller. The easiest and fastest way to gather fruit is to spread a sheet or tarp under a tree and shake the branches. But since most of my mulberries come from public parks, I resort to a slower method. I pick with a rolling motion, barely pulling on the fruit. Gently turn the fruit between two fingers; if it doesn’t come off with the slightest pressure, I leave it for next time. You can harvest mulberries for 3-4 weeks, since the fruit doesn’t ripen all at once.

Red mulberries (Morus rubra) are native to the eastern U.S. White mulberries (Morus alba) were brought here from China as food for silkworms; the worms failed but the tree remains. Some people consider the white mulberry invasive, but when a tree is as generous and delicious as this one, I cut it a little slack. White mulberry trees may have different shaped leaves on the same tree, which is pretty unusual in the tree world. The black mulberry (Morus nigra) is European; in the U.S. it’s hardy only to zone 7.

As often happens when I forage in the city, people stop and watch. They want to ask what I’m doing, but they feel a little shy. (That’s how I know they’re tourists. New Yorkers either don’t care or aren’t shy.) I usually offer the spectators a few berries, but only the bravest accept. Do they seriously think I’d poison them on the streets of New York City? Do I look crazy?

I don’t mind when they refuse. It means more berries for me.

Mulberry Pudding
-Two cups mulberry pulp, liquified in a blender (Any type of mulberry is fine, but the red mulberries make a deeply colored pudding that looks as rich as it tastes.)
-Three Tbs. instant tapioca
-1/3 cup sugar
Combine the above ingredients and let them sit for five minutes.
In a saucepan, bring the mixture to a boil that can’t be stirred down, then remove from the heat and allow to cool for 20 minutes.
Pour into serving bowls. This pudding can be served warm or cold, whichever you prefer. Try it with a little whipped cream and a few whole mulberries on top.


Ellen Spector Platt said...

We had a black mulberry tree in the back yard when I was a girl in Philadelphia. In fifth grade after learning about silk worms, I somehow acquired a few cocoons and kept them in a shoe box along with a large handful of mulberry leaves. I pictured raising an enormous crop of worms that would spin enough cocoons to provide me with silk to sew a kimono. It didn't work.

cindy said...

We had a weeping purple mulberry in the backyard of a house in Milford, CT. It was my favorite hideaway EVER, provided enough berries for a few pies and some jam every year, and made a stain that extended from the back door halfway across the kitchen linoleum. =)

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