Monica Askay: Marvellous mulberries
Food historian Monica Askay muses about the history of mulberries
Most of us know the nursery rhyme “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” but few of us have ever tasted or even seen a mulberry.
First of all it must be said that the mulberry grows on a medium-sized tree, not a bush (a “bramble bush” may have been an earlier version of the rhyme).
Trees can live for around 600 years, becoming very large and gnarled. Two species have been grown in England for centuries, probably first introduced by the Romans. Certainly the mulberry was known in Ancient Greece and Rome.
The names of the species are a bit confusing! Morus nigra, or Black Mulberry (may have originated in the mountains of Nepal or Caucasus) actually has dark red fruit. Morus alba, or White Mulberry (native to central and eastern mountains of China) has black, white or dark red fruit.
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Both these varieties have been found in growing in Suffolk in recent orchard surveys carried out by Suffolk Traditional Orchards Group, Black Mulberry almost always in large old gardens. Several other species, native to America and Asia also exist. In shape the mulberry fruit resembles both a blackberry and a pineapple.
White Mulberry has been cultivated in China for at least 5,000 years, its main use being for rearing silkworms which are fed on its leaves. In 1608, James I was keen to establish silk production in this country and so had mulberry trees imported from throughout Europe. As part of this scheme a four acre mulberry garden was planted near the current site of Buckingham Palace. Unfortunately for the silk trade, these trees were not White Mulberry but Black Mulberry, which are inferior for feeding silkworms, and the silkworm project failed. The Black Mulberry variety of historic interest is Chelsea (syn King James) which originated in the Chelsea Physic Garden.
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Black Mulberry is the superior species for eating, the fruit being larger, and far more juicy and flavourful. The taste is extremely difficult to describe, being quite unlike anything else I have ever tasted.
The White Mulberry will store and travel, has rather less flavour and is far less juicy. The Black Mulberry has copious amounts of purple staining juice which makes picking or gathering them from under the tree quite an undertaking. A very fragile fruit, it is not suitable for commercial sale. It really needs to be eaten or made into ice cream / sorbet or used in other dishes immediately.
Mulberries can be used in any recipe that uses blackberries, loganberries, raspberries etc. They can be made into mulberry gin (make like sloe gin). They go well with orange zest and juice. They can be mixed with other berries in summer fruit salad or summer pudding. They can be used in cakes, muffins and steamed puddings. They make good jams and jellies.
Mulberries are ripe now.