When we are in Greece, we are drawn to the sea. But the mountains, too, pull us into their fold: to hike the ancient paths that wind from village to village, to spend long evenings under the stars at our favorite mountain tavernas, to collect oregano and to gather horta, the wild greens that have sustained Greeks for centuries. Thus, once or twice a week, I find myself navigating the steep road that climbs from Poulithra to the high country above. Over the years it has become a ritual of sorts to stop just after the road makes its final hairpin turn, leaving the view of the village and the sea behind as it begins its journey across the mountain plateau. Once there, I steer my car onto a grassy spot in the shade of an enormous tree, get out, stretch my legs and take in the view below: the village, like a white river tumbling down the mountainside to the sea, the islands of Spetses and Hydra suspended among the layers of blue.
For years, so taken was I by the land and seascape below that it didn’t occur to me to look up at the canopy of that generous tree. Indeed, it took the combined forces of my young daughter and my mother to inspire me to do so. We had stopped on our way home from a visit to dear friends in Kyparissi, the next village down the coast from Poulithra. As we were taking in the view and drinking a bit of water, my daughter, then 7 or 8, said, “Look, Mom, blackberries.” My mother, who grew up in Ohio and spent many hours beside her own grandmother cooking, gardening, and gathering wild foods, said, “No, Sylvie. Not blackberries. Mulberries. Edible and quite delicious.”
And so, since that day, each summer we have gone to that beautiful spot above the sea to gather mulberries.
Mulberries are widespread in Greece and indeed throughout the temperate world. According to Wikipedia, there are 10-16 species of the genus Morus, deciduous trees commonly known as mulberries. I’ve noticed two species in our region: Morus alba (white mulberry) and Morus nigra (black mulberry). Our tree with a view is the black mulberry. Its fruit is a gorgeous deep purple color, indeed it is almost black, and extremely juicy.
From the Satires of Horace we know that the Romans ate mulberries at their feasts: “That man shall spend his summers healthy who shall finish his dinners with mulberries black with ripeness, which he shall have gathered from the tree before the sun becomes violent.” But I’ve found no such evidence of their use here, ancient or otherwise. When I’ve asked my neighbors for recipes or memories of their use, most have shrugged their shoulders, a few suggesting that mulberries may have been used to make a “poto” (drink) or marmalade.
Although the berries’ use in Greek cookery is clearly minimal, the mulberry tree, specifically Morus alba, did play a relatively brief but important role in Greek economics and culture, but its role was not culinary. Indeed, the tree was introduced to Greece from Asia to establish sericulture, or silk production.
For more than two thousand years the Chinese kept the secret of silk to themselves, guarding the details of its production carefully. Although the fabric was a coveted luxury item in the West, people here knew little about the techniques used to produce it. For example, in 70 BC the Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History, “Silk is obtained by removing the down from the leaves with the help of water…” But siga, siga, as we say in Greek (slowly, slowly), the secrets of silk production eventually spread and rulers and early-day entrepreneurs endeavored to bring the industry west. One such ruler was the Byzantine emperor Justinian the Great who, according to the historian Procopius, in the 5th century AD sent two monks as Christian missionaries to China. Their orders? To smuggle silkworm eggs and the seeds of the mulberry tree home, hidden in hollowed-out walking sticks. Whether due to the monks’ efforts or not, around the 5th century AD the practice of sericulture began in the Mediterranean, including in Greece where it eventually flourished. Here on the Peloponnese Peninsula the Byzantine town of Mystras became a center for silk production. In fact, during the Middle Ages, the Peloponnesos was known as Morea (Μωριάς or Morias) from the Greek word for the tree Μουριά, Μouria, or mulberry.
If you live in North America and wish to gather mulberries, look for Morus rubra, the red mulberry, or Morus alba, the white mulberry of sericulture fame. Red mulberry trees have reddish-brown bark and reach a height of about sixty-five feet. As my friend the forager and author Hank Shaw writes, they’re easy to recognize as they’re “the only thing in North America that looks like a blackberry tree.” (My daughter would agree.) The white mulberry reaches about forty feet, has rough, gray bark and, of course, white berries. Depending on the species and their hybrids, ripe mulberries come in different colors: white, pink, red, and that gorgeous nearly-black shade of deep purple. You can eat all of them; there are no poisonous look-alikes.
How did black mulberries get their gorgeous color? The answer lies in the Ovidian love story, “Pyramus and Thisbe.” The plot will seem familiar: Two young lovers–Pyramus, “the most handsome of young men,” and Thisbe, “the fairest beauty of the East.” Their parents, feuding, have forbidden them to meet, and so the youths whisper to each other through a crack in the wall of their adjoining houses. When they can no longer stand their separation, they agree to meet in the shade of a certain mulberry tree. Thisbe arrives, but she encounters a lioness bloodied and fresh from a kill. She flees, leaving her veils behind. Pyramus arrives, sees the same bloodied lion and the veils and assumes that she has killed Thisbe. Bereft, he falls upon his sword to join his love in the afterlife. As he falls, his blood splashes upon the white mulberries and stains them. Thisbe returns. Finding Pyramus slain by his own hand, she takes his dagger and dispatches her own life. The gods, hearing Thisbe’s lament, change the berries’ color to honor the youths’ forbidden love.
Blood-stained or no, mulberries are high in Vitamin C and resveratrol, one of the heart-healthy substances present in red wine. They also contain iron, postassium and Vitamin K.
If, like my daughter, you prefer to eat the berries fresh from the tree, preferably whilst in the tree, there’s no need for a recipe. But there are many ways to cook them. This year I made a delicious mulberry syrup for ice cream and pancakes. From pies to marmalade, you can do anything with mulberries that you do with any other berry, and they dry and freeze well. Since they don’t have the acidity of other fruits, I suggest using lemon or lime juice to enhance their flavor.
Recipe for a simple syrup
- Rinse and sort the berries. Feel free to leave the stems intact.
- In a heavy pot, add equal parts mulberries to water (i.e. 1 cup of mulberries to 1 cup of water). Bring the berries to a boil.
- Remove the berries from the stove and, using a fork or potato masher, smash them.
- Allow the berry mixture to continue cooking on a medium flame for 20 minutes or more.
- Using cheescloth (or a lightweight kitchen towel) suspended over a bowl, allow the berries to drain overnight. (You may need to wring out any remaining juice the next day.)
- Return the juice to a pot and add sugar to taste. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. It takes about an hour for the syrup to thicken. Stir occasionally so that it doesn’t stick or burn on the bottom.
- Test the thickness of the syrup with a spoon. If the syrup is too thin, it will slide off immediately. If it is ready, it will coat your spoon and slowly slip off.
Delicious on ice cream, pancakes and yogurt. Καλή όρεξη!