Charles Quest-Ritson looks at some of the berries in the typical English garden which you might never even have thought of as edible.
My father was very fond of fuchsias. He said the beautiful black fruits were delicious and that he’d like to pick enough to make some fuchsia jam. I don’t know whether he succeeded in jamming them, but I do remember that he ate them like strawberries, with sugar and whipped cream.
If you are a greedy or curious foodie, you, too, will have looked at the fruits and berries of plants in your garden and wondered if they were edible — could you make something of them with an interesting and original taste? Often, the answer is yes. But you have to know what is poisonous, plus what is edible, but not worth the effort.
Take medlars, for example. They’re one of those old-fashioned trees that aspirational gardeners like to grow, but the truth is that they look disgusting and they taste disgusting. People say you must ‘blet’ them before consuming them — bletting means letting them go half-rotten so that the flesh is soft and spoonable — but then they taste even nastier. If you want to know why our primitive ancestors cultivated them 2,500 years ago, it was because they did not have much choice — the Romans had not yet introduced us to apples and pears.
“Pots of Japonica Jelly went back to school in my tuck box and I ate it with a spoon. Teenage boys have hollow legs“
Those revered ancient Britons also ate the fruit of the service tree, a species of mountain ash or rowan called Sorbus domestica. It’s a pretty tree and the berries are the size of marbles — they hang down in handsome clusters. But their flavour when bletted (which is how our apple-deprived forebears ate them) is equally as putrid as a medlar’s. If, however, you pick them when they first turn red, which is long before people say they are ripe, they do make a passable liqueur: steep them in brandy with lots of sugar.
We certainly make rowan jelly from the wild Sorbus aucuparia. The colour is glorious and the bitter taste is the perfect complement for roast lamb. And we make a strongly flavoured jelly from the fruits of Japanese quinces (Chaenomeles japonica and C. speciosa). I say ‘strongly flavoured’, but each of these fruity novelties offers a new experience — a flavour unique to itself and, therefore, impossible to describe. Anyway, pots of Japonica Jelly went back to school in my tuck box and I ate it with a spoon. Teenage boys have hollow legs.
Some years ago, I visited Hungary’s national botanic garden at Vácrátót, north of Budapest. Outside the main entrance gate was a mini market of vaguely botanical products. I fell in with an old woman selling a vast range of homemade jams in small glass pots. She recommended — we spoke German — a paste-like jam she made from the fruits of cornelian cherry, or Cornus mas.
“The arbutus trees formed little woodlands, heavy with fruit. They were sweet and delicious beyond belief”
Was it sour? No, because she made it from berries that were so ripe that they dropped when she touched them. The jam, when I opened it, was indeed rich and fruity, thanks to her late picking — and to Hungary’s hot summers.
Many plants grow better in hotter climates than ours. The strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, may be native to Co Clare (no one can explain quite why), but the fruit is pretty tasteless in the British Isles. One November, however, we stayed with some Spanish friends in Extremadura, where the arbutus trees formed little woodlands, heavy with fruit. They were sweet and delicious beyond belief. The farm workers’ wives make jam from them, we were told, and the husbands steep them in brandy. We asked whether our friends did so too, but no, only the workers. Good manners prevented us from asking if we could pick some to take home with us.
There was some discussion in my youth as to whether one made conserves or preserves. One was U and the other was non-U — I can’t remember which — but we made great quantities of jam. We also cut apple rings and dried them over the Aga (my daughters still do). We bottled everything because deep freezes did not exist, except in the US.
We also salted runner beans. I’m not sure of the proportions, but the beans were topped and tailed and laid flat in a tall earthenware jar and covered in layers of salt. I do not recommend anyone to try it nowadays — it’s not necessary and there are better vegetables than runner beans — but the spirit of make-do and mend lasted for many years among those who had gone through the Second World War.
That’s not why my father ate fuchsia berries. He was simply curious. Now, I see that the first fruits on my own fuchsias are just starting to ripen. I shall pick a few in his memory and dream of making jam.