"Hah!" I hear you people laugh, "now this country bumpkin is trying to tell us strawberries grow on trees! He's been on the funny mushrooms again!" Well no, not exactly, but this is my latest discovery on my search for free edibles gathered from the wild.
I had long noticed these evergreen trees with colourful strawberry like fruit growing on them, but assumed they were only good for the local bird population. In fact the fruit of the strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, also known as Irish Strawberry or Killarney strawberry due to the fact that they grow in the south west of Ireland too, is perfectly edible. Ok, it's not as tasty as a strawberry. In fact Pliny the Elder explains the Latin name unedo as meaning unum edo, I eat one, referring to the fact that you really aren't tempted to have another one once you've had one.
The fruit, known as Corbezzolo in Italian, doesn't taste bad raw, just slightly sweet, a bit bland and very pithy. In fact with it's tiny seeds it has a similar consitency to strawberries too. According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strawberry_Tree) only the Portuguese and the Italians utilize the fruit to make liqueurs and jams. This is what it looks like:
I had a recipe in my Ligurian preserve recipe book, which I thought was worth trying out for a jam. I have no idea what the nutritional value of the fruit is, but we collected just under a kilo to see what we could do.
Here's the recipe: to each kilo of strawberry tree fruit you need 400g sugar and a small glass of alchermes liqueur.
Slowly boil the fruit with a splash of water until soft. Press through a tomato mill and reheat together with the sugar and the liqueur. According to the book you are then to let it simmer for a couple of hours, but mine would have turned to caramel by then. 45 minutes was more than sufficient.
As far as the liqueur is concerned, it's a traditional Italian red herbal liqueur. It went out of fashion, when people discovered that the red colour was made from crushed insects. Modern commercial versions of the drink use some chemical food dye instead, and people prefer that. Isn't it odd that people rather take in some artificial colourant than a flavourless natural dye, just because it's made from some creepy crawly... As far as the actual flavour components of alchermes is concerned, they are cinnamon bark, cloves, vanilla, coriander seeds and nutmeg. You can make your own version, by steeping those in alcohol for a couple of days, then filter and add sugar and water to get to about 30% alcohol and leave for another month or so. If you want the traditional red colour, you can add maybe some beetroot juice.
On our wild food gathering trip we also picked some more juniper berries