Country: The Quentin Tarantino of fruit

Pick mulberries and you end up looking like a gangster victim. But the trees come from a respectable family
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The Independent Culture
YOU TRY and tell them, but they don't listen. You warn them about wearing old shoes if they go out in the garden, and of not going under the tree, but they still come back peppered in vivid red splatters as if they have been strafed by a machine gun, and with a slick of red gore on their shoes as if they have been skidding through an abattoir.

You can see why first-time visitors don't heed your warnings. It is, after all, only a mulberry tree. Who would think it could cause such carnage to your clothes?

But it's true. The mulberry is the Quentin Tarantino of fruit trees. Owning one makes you the horticultural equivalent of the man with tattoos and a pair of Rottweilers who you people avoid in the park. So what's our excuse? We were seduced.

I wouldn't quite say that we bought the house, six years ago, because of the mulberry tree, but it was certainly a part of the sell. And we had it surveyed by an arboriculturalist at about the same time the house was surveyed.

"It's a beauty," he said. "A black mulberry, probably 100 years old, but then they fruit for a couple of hundred at least. The black is excellent for fruit. The white has the leaves that the silk worms like."

He was right about the fruit. From late summer to early autumn it is covered in berries that are like blackberries on steroids: as big as your thumb, as black as pitch and positively throbbing with juice. And as soon as you try to harvest them you realise why they are so rare.

In theory, the fruit should yield immediately to your fingers when it's ripe. But it often doesn't. It either drops off just as you reach for it, or remains stubbornly attached as you tug. And, the fruit being so soft and so juicy, just the very lightest touch sends its bright red blood coursing down your arm.

Pick a pound of fruit and you come back looking like Macbeth just after he has done the deed. And, once picked, the fruit immediately begins to rot. So it demands that you get straight to work turning it into jam, a pie filling, ice cream, sorbet or any of the other schemes you have thought up for using such an abundance of fruit.

The obvious answer is to freeze it. But how do you find room for what, in a season, will be 100lbs or more? Another is to eat it fresh. But the mulberry is not happy to be scoffed without ceremony. The first couple taste delicious as the juice flows down your throat, like cranberry with a tang. But then you get the slightly musty aftertaste. And the aftertaste grows the more you eat.

All of which explains why the mulberry has been ignored by commercial growers, why you don't see it done up in plastic punnets in the supermarket, and why you will hardly ever see a tree.

We do go mulberry spotting. So far we have found one at Cliveden in Bucks, one at Grey's Court near Henley, another in the cloister at Canterbury Cathedral, and one in the garden of Hogarth's House in Chiswick.

And yet, the mulberry has a noble history of cultivation in this country. Originally from temperate Asia, the black and the white mulberry were probably introduced to Europe by the Greeks. The Romans are thought to have brought themover here. But King James I gets the credit for their widespread planting.

He hatched a plan in 1609 to boost England's failing economy by creating a home-grown silk industry. For that, he needed mulberry leaves, and so planted 100,000 trees around the country, including a four-acre orchard where Buckingham Palace now stands.

But he made a fundamental error. Instead of planting white mulberries (Morus alba), as he should have, he planted black (Morus nigra), from which the worms can produce only silk of an inferior quality. James's silk trade died a death, but some of the trees he planted are still alive, and fruiting to this day.

Just to look at the gnarled and ancient, cork-like trunk of our tree, to examine the past butchery of pollarding, which has left it with a knobbly, domed scalp from which new branches shoot long and straight, makes me want to nurture it, to nurse it into its second century. Also, we are not the only fans of the mulberry. An entire range of wildlife we get here is hooked, too. The foxes wolf up the fallers, birds from magpie and jay down to thrush love it. And the many cats are all partial to a meal of mulberry-stuffed bird. The squirrels are the most ingenious. They extend the season by using the fruit that never falls but stays in situ as a handy source of dried snack in the winter months.

And, a year ago, we tried extending our mulberry season by making wine. The big test came last weekend when we opened the first bottle. The wine looked good as it glugged into my glass. It was cool and clear like a decent rose. It smelt fruity and clean. As it touched the tongue it was dry and crisp like a pinot grigio, and then, as I swallowed, came the wonderful, fruity mulberry taste, but with none of the mustiness of the fresh fruit.

It was, in short, wonderful. And our 24 bottles are not going to last for long. So, with this year's crop, we will make 50. And drink to our mulberry tree.

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