Pyramus and Thisbe

One thing about foraging is that, the longer you have spent practising it, the more chance there is of a ramble, a bike-ride, or even a lake swim to provide the means and the inspiration for a wild food experiment.

July is a month laden with fruit, but this year, as the weather has been so extreme in the early months, several sources have already been carried off by the birds, including the Cornel cherries and serviceberries, which are usually so prolific in my area. Besides, the relatively dry heat of summer is not my ideal weather for foraging, and with the mushrooms still a few weeks shy, plans had been to do lots of lake swimming.

Krumme Lanke, 8th July

Krumme Lanke, 8th July

A few days ago a friend and I took a long ride south-west to Krumme Lanke lake, swimming and watching the great crested grebes. This friend had been asking after my copy of The Metamorphoses which I had finished over winter (the more astute of my many readers (har har) will note that Ovid seems often to haunt my foraging), and we took turns reading episodes to each other out loud in the shade of the alders by the water. I eventually chose the story of Philemon and Baucis, the pious aged couple who are rewarded for their hospitality to the gods by being turned upon death into two neighbouring trees. We thought about reading Pyramus and Thisbe, but the mosquitoes were coming out, so we took off back towards the city. As I should be writing about foraging and not poetry (and in case you don’t remember it), that unread tale goes in brief like this:

Pyramus and Thisbe in forbidden love, plot a lovers’ tryst. Flee from their respective parents, agree to meet in forest by white-fruited tree next to fountain; enter lion, recently and well-fed, seeking fountain.  Exit Thisbe, running, losing cape. Lion nuzzles cape with bloody mouth. Enter Pyramus, sees cape, thinks worst, commits suicide. Enter Thisbe, sees lover, does same. Blood stains white fruit of tree (and ground beneath tree) blood red. Pyramus and Thisbe forever linked with tree whose white fruits turn blood red – the mulberry tree. End.

We ended up getting slightly lost on our way to the station, and were directed to walk over a small park to the road. On the way we found a piece of white-and-pink gingham cloth caught on some newly sprouting brambles. A few steps ahead the path at our feet became stained a rich crimson with trampled fruit, and we looked up to see clusters of white and red mulberries hanging from the branches. This coincidence pushed me to the absolute limits of my own rational scepticism, and I had a baffled climb in the trees shaking down the massy fruit to be either eaten or bagged by my more-than-patient friend. After I found a way to get myself up to the higher branches we took about seven-hundred grams, just picking the choice fallen fruit from the grass.

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As it is more accustomed to the warmer, milder climates of continental Europe, I have only ever found one other mulberry around Berlin in my three-and-a-half years here, that being at the Schöneberger Südgelände (see previous posts), and it was such a pleasure to find the avenue tree of The Silk Road at the edge of a quiet park in the district of Zehlendorf. I got home and was wondering what to do with the fruit when I started thinking about the leaves, which I’d not bothered to pick. A great fan of Middle Eastern cuisine, some time ago I’d been talking about Israeli food with a friend who had been in Tel Aviv. He told me about the herb Za’atar, which can be the name for thyme, oregano, summer savoury, hyssop, or all four mixed (in Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook Jerusalem he declares Za’atar as simply hyssop). He also told me that instead of stuffing vine leaves, they stuff mulberry leaves. So it was back to the spot to get the leaves I could have gathered in the first place, this time with another friend and minus the literary preamble (after all, who knows what tangent that might have thrown us off at?)

Signornina A. hard at work checking for scale insect

Signornina A. scrutinizes quality of the leaves

Having not come across the tree very often outside of books, I could only recall the beauty and variation of the lower, latent leaves, which could have given a clue to their potential use as vine leaves had I known they were edible. The lobes and margins seem to define their shapes and limits however they see fit, often distinctly asymmetrically:

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Eccentrically lobed

Simple toothed margin

Simple toothed margin

After getting the leaves back home and experimenting with them a little, it was easy to see how well-suited the mature ones were to the job, and as I’ve not experimented much with leaf parcels in the wild food kitchen, I thought I might store them in brine to make my own semi-wild dolmades at a future date. Preparing the whole bag of them turned out to be really satisfying work, as they yielded up the best method of folding; once from tip to base, then the outer margins together along the leaf vein, I bettered this technique by dipping them in the brine first to make them stick. This way they can be packed down into a mason jar in spirals, the folded margins facing out, the veins facing in; this way, they interlock and tend not to float up to the surface where they could become exposed to the air. This also looks better than a mass of leaves held under the brine any which way.

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Going through the leaves, cleaning each one with a damp cloth before packing down, you really see the beauty of their varied margins – it seems to me the work of luthiers (or string instrument makers) reaching from Europe to China is recurrently grounded in work surrounding leaf patterns: whether it be simple ornamentation, or the whole form of the instrument (think of the cut-away forms of guitars, lutes and dulcimers), some echo of the leaf is almost always desired in the wood’s final aesthetic.

Finally, after the last forage walk I did, where I was a bit over-enthusiastic about giving out samples for the foragers to try, my wild drinks trolley was looking a bit on the famished side (especially that the last of the elderflower champagne was successfully polished off before it exploded – the same could not be said for the nettle beer). I decided that something other than fingertips and the suicide spots of mythological lovers could be stained mulberry red…

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