Mulberries and other dainties

foodmulberries4by Simone Sekers

IT’s raining again, and so I am searching through my collection of tattered recipe books for something to do with the glut of mulberries we are enjoying.

These are fruit about which much is written in terms of flavour, but little in terms of what to do with them. Many people don’t even know that you can eat them – they pick their way through the carpet of the dark red, wasp haunted fruit, which look like raspberries on steroids, admiring the often ancient tree with it’s generous dark green leaves without realising they are missing out on one of summer’s best treats.

Our tree is only about 12 years old and has been fruiting copiously for the last four, which surprises those who think they take years to produce anything. Now we have more than enough and give away those we can’t cope with to those who love them and those who might be persuaded to love them.

I turned to one of my most idiosyncratic cookery books for help. This is a ‘quaint’ volume – there’s no other word for it – whimsically called A Book of Scents and Dishes. It’s a collection of recipes, or, rather, receipts, gathered by Dorothy Allhusen and published in 1926. I was diverted from the search for mulberry recipes on reading Mrs Allhusen’s introduction, in which she reveals that it was compiled at the suggestion of Mrs Thomas Hardy, in order to raise money for charity.

It is one of those books so often produced on this basis by genteel ladies who threw themselves into the task of writing to all their friends to ask them for their favourite dishes, and in this particular book many of the recipe headings include the full names and addresses of the donors, who are usually titled.

At this time most would have had cooks, and there is an overwhelming impression that these ladies, on receiving the letter from their friend Dorothy, would make their way straight to the kitchen to have a word with Cook.  As a result some are brief to the point of nonsense, Cook obviously being impatient to get Her Ladyship out of the kitchen again so she could get on with lunch. Take this recipe for something called Flat Dish: “Mash some potatoes and mix with a little stock and chopped onion. Spread on the top some thick potato sauce. Lay whole anchovies on the sauce and serve very hot.” I can’t help feeling Cook omitted some vital ingredients, and for the life of me I can’t think what potato sauce might be. A white sauce with added cheese might have been an improvement.

foodmulberries3I flipped through the pages (thick paper, with rough edges, to imitate something vaguely oldy worldy) and found a very cookable recipe for Potted Rabbit contributed by ‘“The Late Lady Grove, Sedgehill Manor, Shaftesbury,” whose cook was presumably happy to part with the secrets of her dish. Whether this was before or after Lady Grove’s demise isn’t documented.

There are several recipes from Mrs Hardy herself, which are simple and to the point, for Apple Jelly (she suggests using Keswick codlings for this), and Yeovil Tea Cake: “1lb flour, 6oz dripping, 4 oz sugar, 1 egg, a little lemon peel, milk. Mix with a little milk and bake on a dinner plate. Eat hot.” Not very exciting, perhaps, but worth a try and probably good spread with the apple jelly.

Vita Sackville-West sent in several recipes, including one for gingerbread, dated 1628, which requires “3 stale Manchets,” and another for a “Persian Dish” of unspecified meat or a fowl, walnuts, pomegranate juice and a lot of butter – again, neither shows any signs of having actually been cooked by the donor herself. But the book is full of interesting things, all the same, and a great many recipes from France, including this puzzling method of cooking ham, from “Mother Superior, Die Hopital, Drome, France,” which involves putting a whole ham in a pan containing “24 or 26 pints of water” and cooking it for two hours “without ceasing,” then draining it and leaving it to cool, after that cutting it into very thin slices as needed.

foodMulberriesApparently ham prepared thus would keep for more than two weeks. Again, much has been omitted. Was two hours really long enough to cook a whole ham? Was the absence of any sort of vegetable or herb flavouring the reason why the ham might keep that long? I long to ask the sister who actually cooked the hams at the Die Hopital how this worked.  The ghosts of the cooks who really did the cooking for the donors of the recipes are present at every turn of the page, which adds to its charm, and I salute them.

But there’s nothing about mulberries – perhaps these were the gardener’s perks. Finally, I find a mention of them, under the heading “To Make Gelly of Straw-berries,” along with other “Tender Fruit.” The finished product is clearly a sort of fruit cheese, like that made with quinces and called membrillo. This particular recipe involves pounding the fruit in an “Alabaster mortar” with sugar and water and an equal quantity of rose water, then boiling the mixture “with a little peece of Isinglasse” and straining it through a cloth “into your boxes so you may keepe it all the yeere.”  I might give this a go, using pectin in place of isinglass, and some rose-scented geranium leaves. The whole should suit the Allhusen ethos, I think.

* Pictured is a copy of  A Book of Scents and Dishes. if you are interested in acquiring a copy of this eccentric collection, there are several editions available on Abe Books.