Saturday, July 5, 2008
The last of the mulberry cobbler
On a long morning walk a few weeks ago, I discovered a mulberry tree growing at the rear of St. John's churchyard cemetary on Portland Street. The tree actually grows inside the cemetary fence, but drooping branches make fruit available to anyone passing by.
By the shape of the leaves, the mulberry is either a black mulberry or a white mulberry, both of which are native to Asia, and were imported into this country to use the leaves as feed in an attempt at colonial-era silkmaking. The white mulberry is now considered a pest tree and an invasive species, and was identified as such in a very interesting article about weeds, greenhouse gases and invasive species a few weeks ago in the New York Times Magazine. The red mulberry is native to this part of the country, but apparently relatively rare.
The mulberry is apparently high in vitamins C and K, iron, riboflavin, magnesium and potassium. They taste good too.
I remember eating mulberries as a kid in New Britain. The tree was near my cousin's house, and we could climb and eat until our hands were purple and our stomachs ached.
Eating a handful of berries from the tree on Portland Street reminded me of their distinct taste. They look like a blackberry, but their taste is more complex.
I thought the berries would make a great pie.
So, I took Aidan and Dermot to the churchyard to do some picking and eating. They ate, for sure, but the branches were too high for them to do much picking. I picked for nearly an hour, and still didn't have enough to fill a pie crust. At that point, Aidan barked his knee on a headstone, and, with six hands sticky and stained purple we headed home.
Easy enough to eat one at a time, cleaning for use in pie was painful. Each berry comes off the tree with its stem intact - a single, thin, sharp needle that is difficult to extract, and painful to ingest. An hour later I had the berries clean. If I was making jelly, a simple straining would have separated the useful fruit from the stems. But for pie, a simple straining would have been disastrous, from a texture standpoint.
I didn't have enough fruit to fill a crust, so on July 4, I combined the mulberries with some fresh blueberries and made a sweet-crust cobbler for a backyard cookout. My innate pie-sense was correct.
The cobbler was a hit. The mulberries added just enough complexity of sweet and sour to liven up the usual bland and predictable blueberriness of blueberries, especially cultivated blueberries.
I'm not sure I'll ever take the time to pick and clean enough mulberries for a pie, but the resulting clamor for seconds is some encouragement.
I love to eat and cook with found fruit. There are many abandoned apple and cherry trees around town, and I was much disturbed when Stonehenge nurseries took down two old variety apple trees on the grounds of the Russell House so that the field could more easily be cut with power mowers. The groundspeople at Wesleyan, upon hearing my complaint, declared that the trees were damaged. I picked apples from them for six years, and there was nothing wrong with them. The fruit was not often aesthetially pleasing, but the trees were laden, and the apples made great pie.
BTW, the plum trees on the Western border of Union Park (South Green) are heavy with fruit, but when they turn sweet you'll be competing with the Greek and Italian women who I often encounter picking bags full of fruit. The competition can be fierce, but I'm usually a good foot taller, so the higher-hanging fruit is mine. There is also an old apple tree in the park with remarkably good fruit.