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Monday, 26 October 2009

of strawberry trees

"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

as well as more chestnuts, pine kernels and even a few mushrooms. The latter I haven't positively identified yet, so might not get eaten.
Finally here a picture of our chilli loving kitten Rooney. She has curled herself up inside a flowerpot with a chilli plant.


Angela said...

Those fruits look tempting! Funny informations about them (I eat one - only. Good to know Latin!) and a nice recipe. In our garden we have the "real" ones, also lots of other berries, and I made many jars full of jam. All the self-made apple sauce and preserved pears and the rumpot (Rumtopf?) and the gooseberry tart - aren`t they all so much tastier than anything you can buy? Your cat looks cute! Thanks for your comment on mine. I`d like to hear more about your experiences. paccife is the veri word, see?

Mr. H. said...

What an absolutely interesting looking fruit! I have never seen anything quite like it and wish I could try it.

I have a feeling that we consume a lot more bugs than we think in our daily salads, oh well it's just protein.

Our foraging season is about over for the year and begins the next spring with morel mushrooms, I can't wait. Maybe I will add some re-hydrated mushrooms to tonight's menu.

We run across juniper berries upon occasion I will have to try using them in a cabbage dish as you suggested in an earlier post. Thanks for the tip.

Heiko said...

Mr. H., I don't imagine you get strawberry trees in your climate. They are native to the Mediterranean and only survive in the South of Ireland because of the warming influence of the Gulf stream. The mushrooms I picked yesterday I now identified as Blewits and be will eaten in an omlette tonight.

Angela, it's a long time ago now, but back in 1979 I was shocked by the amount of sheer ignorance and open racism I experienced in the US. Maybe I had just bad luck. It was the last green valley before the desert, 100 miles east of LA and many of the inhabitants told me they had moved away from the city because [quote]:"of all them damn niggers".

Simon said...

Thanks for the recipe. I have been eyeing up the red fruits for a while and had thought they were not edible. Now I can make some jam!

Angela said...

Heiko, in my school we had one Chinese, one Indian boy, but NO African Americans, so I was not confronted with racism - though that speaks for itself, doesn`t it? Not all that I saw was gold, and yes, the ignorance of foreign places was making me laugh ("Do you know wallpaper in Germany?" or "I have an aunt in Italy, do you know her?"). But even those who knew nothing were friendly and curious. But I was white, of course. Only now that I live here in the former DDR, I can be glad I am not coloured, either!

Heiko said...

Simon, we must meet up sometime. I'm really interested in your project. We are may be considering something similar in the future.

Angela, I'll happily exchange some more experiences about our respective travels if you'll leave me your e-mail.

Ayak said...

It's one of the joys of living in a different country, to discover different fruits. We have a fruit which grows here in Turkey which is referred to as yenidunya..which means new world. After searching the web I've discovered it's a locquat (sp?)...anyway they are delicious!

Heiko said...

Ayak, yes I know loquat. We've got a tree on our land. I didn't know what it was before either. The fruit ripens in June, it's just flowering now.

Gaia's Hope said...

I search to find an arbutus unedo plant for my plot. The name in greek is koumaria.
The english name "Strawberry Tree" it's funny