Mrs. Ron wears a faded, stained work shirt over her everyday clothes as she goes out to the backyard for the daily ceremony of picking black mulberries. “Mulberry stains can be removed only with scissors,” she says, repeating a mantra of her mother’s that has become a part of a sweet childhood memory. Anyone lucky enough to live near a mulberry tree is familiar with the ritual. The fruits don’t all ripen at the same time; every day, new berries mature and change their color from red to purple-black. That’s why you go out to the tree every morning or evening to gather and eat ripe berries.
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One hand holds a bowl, the other picks and pops berries into your mouth. Very few make their way into the container and even fewer make it over the threshold of the house. Big dreams about all kinds of cakes, frozen desserts and fresh berry delicacies are often shattered as you succumb to your insatiable desire to gobble them up immediately. Both hands are covered within minutes with the purple juice of the easily-picked ripe fruit.
“My sister and I used to sit on the tree and eat until our stomachs ached,” recalls Anat Ron, a native of Kfar Yehezkel who lives in Tel Adashim, in a dreamy tone. “Mother used to open the windows and shout at us to take off our clothes and climb the tree in underpants so as not to dirty our clothes with stains that would never come out. During the short mulberry season it was impossible to hang laundry on the ropes outside. Bulbuls and bats, which also love the sweet taste, would leave unforgettable souvenirs of purple guano on clean clothes that were hanging up outside to dry.”
The Ron family still preserves part of the earlier lifestyle of people who live on their land according to the seasons. In late summer they prepare wine for the family’s use from the grapes in the vineyard behind the house. In late winter they give the fruits of the lemon tree to a neighbor who prepares limoncello, an Italian lemon liqueur. In June and July, when the days lengthen and become hot, they prepare plum tarts with a cookie dough the color of ripe corn, glazed with shiny sugar. And every evening they go out to the backyard to pick the fruits of the black mulberry tree.
An untamed fruit
The black mulberry originated in Central Asia, apparently in the area of Persia. The white mulberry, which comes from China and whose leaves are used to raise silkworms, probably arrived in our region during the Middle Ages. The black mulberry, one of whose species was given the romantic name of “shami,” arrived during the first centuries CE. It’s said that ancient fighters would inflame the passions of their armored combat elephants – who carried a wooden tower filled with archers – by letting them see and smell grapes and black mulberries.
In the world of industrialized agriculture, the nature of the black mulberry remains untamed. No one has prolonged its short season, less than two months, beyond the time allotted to it by nature. The black mulberry, like other berries, has a short shelf life; the berries are easily crushed and don’t last long. A short shelf life, for good and for ill, is an enemy of commercial agriculture. The black mulberry has remained a brief seasonal pleasure whose taste is mingled with memories and the longing for it during the rest of the year. Local plant nurseries offer saplings for sale, and anyone who can plant a tree is invited to join the annual black mulberry ritual.
It’s hard to find local recipes for black mulberries. The delicate fruit, as noted, is usually eaten while it is being picked or immediately afterward. Those heroic enough to contain their urges – or have a tree that produces lots of fruit – usually preserve them by preparing liqueurs or preserves (the jam you get from black mulberries is very watery). Anat Ron, who has a doctorate degree in biologyand is also a gifted cook, includes them in cheesecakes and fresh salads, and prepares a refreshing sweet-and-sour sorbet from them.
Chef Erez Komarovsky, who deserves a lot of credit for shaping the language of Israeli cuisine and using local ingredients, prepares a chicken dish using the juices of grapes and berries, red sumac berries and hot peppers. Here is his recipe:
Roasted chicken breasts with black mulberry preserves and red wine
1 kg. chicken breasts, butterflied
4-5 dried hot red peppers (sudania or shata)
2.5 tbsp. of fresh, high-quality sumac berries
fresh black mulberries for garnish
For the sauce:
250-300 gm. black mulberries
1 bottle of dry red wine
(Pinot Noir or another tart wine)
3 tbsp. demerara sugar
5 cardamom pods
2 anise stars
1 nutmeg peel
1/4 vanilla stick
2 dried hot red peppers (sudania or shata)
For the sauce: Pour the wine into a wide, shallow saucepan, add the sugar and spices and bring to a boil. Cook at a boil until most of the wine is reduced and you get a thick syrup.
Add the berries to the pot, stir gently and cook for 2-3 minutes until you get a kind of watery jam. It’s important to taste the jam and adjust the flavors. The flavor should be sweet-sour-hot, and if the berries are very ripe you should balance the sweetness with the juice of half a lemon. Turn off the heat and set aside.
The chicken: Crush the dried peppers, sumac berries and a little coarse salt with a mortar and pestle or an electric spice grinder. Rub the chicken breasts with olive oil, scatter the ground spices over them and massage the chicken so it will be covered uniformly. Heat an iron skillet thoroughly and fry the chicken on both sides (if there isn’t enough olive oil you can add a little).
Transfer the chicken to a serving platter, pour the hot sauce over it, scatter some fresh mulberries on top and serve immediately.