Due to unseasonal rains and a touch of neglect on my part, my kitchen garden has become rather less productive. However, there’s one thing that’s cheering me up these days and drawing me back to the garden each day. It marks the third season of fruiting of our mulberry bush. This year, an abundance of purple fruit is adorning the nearly 15ft-tall tree in our terrace garden. I can easily pluck the ripe berries within my reach, and where my grasp falls short, willing birds partake in the feast, generously dropping the berries on the stone pathways, leaving them stained in a deep purple-black hue.
In December 2019, on a whim during our visit to Teja nursery in Devanahalli, Bengaluru, we brought home several fruit saplings, including a mulberry plant. This nursery offers an impressive array of over 200 organic fruit plants, both local and exotic. Among them were the GI-tagged pomelo plants, a local speciality. It was here that I encountered, and tasted for the first time, an incredibly beautiful jewel-like berry that bore the name “Mysuru jamun”. Its flavour was akin to the familiar jamun (black plum), though less sweet and with a more pronounced astringency, with a claim to be useful for diabetics. When I remarked to the nursery owner that “this isn’t sweet enough”, he responded with a wise grin, “lady, if it’s for health, it’s not going to be sweet”. I couldn’t help but chuckle and nod in agreement. Sadly, the Mysuru jamun plant didn’t survive, but the black mulberry (Morus nigra), brought home at the insistence of the nursery owner, not only endured but thrived, despite our occasional neglect. Its last pruning was done some three-four months ago, and now a whole new crop of berries has emerged within easy plucking distance this season.
The rarity and costliness of mulberries is due to their delicate nature; they are prone to crushing during packaging and their high moisture content makes them susceptible to fungus. Growing them at home, as I do, comes with no guarantee that the birds won’t have their share of the ripe fruit before you get to them. Notably, the black mulberry tree boasts an impressive lifespan of 500-1,000 years.
In south India, mulberry cultivation isn’t primarily for the fruit. Instead, it’s intricately linked with the production of silk, the very thread that weaves the fabric of Mysuru crepes and Kanjivarams. Karnataka stands at the forefront of mulberry cultivation in India, boasting a thriving sericulture industry. Districts like Mysuru, Channarayapatna, and Ramanagara serve as key hubs for this industry. Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal also have rich histories of mulberry farming and sericulture. The silk produced by worms that exclusively feed on mulberry leaves yields a quality unmatched in terms of uniformity, strength, and fineness and is considered to be the best in the world. In the hilly terrains of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, mulberry is cherished for its fruit, known locally as shahtoot in Hindi.
Given the short lifespan of the ripe fruit, it is best to consume it as is, right away or use it in baking, preserves, beverages or in fermentation. Muffins, tea cakes, pies, tarts, bars are some of the baked goods to which mulberries can lend their vibrant colour and distinct flavour. The ripe berries can be preserved as jams, jellies, sharbat, cordials and syrups. Mulberry syrups can be used to brighten up lemonades and gin-based cocktails, pairing well with other botanical flavours. Mulberries make the most beginner-friendly jams as no pectin is required in the process. I find that fermentation is the best way to extend the life of a delicate produce like mulberries. Be it in hot sauce, wine or vinegar, or to flavour the second fermentation of kombucha, give mulberries a better chance with fermentation.
(This is the easiest to make a mulberry preserve that can be used in multiple ways.)
One and a half cups mulberries
4 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
Snip off the stems attached to the mulberries. Wash and drain the fruit and place in a bowl. Add the sugar and crush the mulberries by kneading along with the sugar, until you get a coarse puree.
Transfer this to a saucepan and simmer for 15 minutes on a low flame until reduced. Add the vanilla extract, stir and turn off the flame.
Spoon it into a glass bottle when cool and refrigerate. Use within a week.
Uses for this compote:
1. Spoon over vanilla ice cream.
2. Use as a topping on waffles and pancakes.
3. Serve over a basic vanilla sponge cake with some whipped cream.
4. Serve over a yogurt bowl with granola.
(This serves as a delicious dip for crackers to be served as an appetiser. It can also be served on slices of pound cake as a dessert.)
2 cups mulberries
4 tbsp granulated sugar
200g mascarpone cheese
1-2 tbsp icing sugar
Half tsp lemon zest
Half tsp vanilla extract
Wash, drain and snip the stems of the mulberries. In a bowl crush the mulberries with the granulated sugar, mashing it lightly with a ladle or a muddler. Let this sit for 30 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine the mascarpone cheese, icing sugar, lemon zest and vanilla. Using an electric whisk, whip it on a low speed until smooth and creamy. In the absence of an electric whisk, using a balloon whisk or a wooden ladle.
Spread out the whipped mascarpone on a platter. Spoon the macerated mulberries in the centre. Serve with crackers or spread between two slices of vanilla tea cake to make cake-sandwiches for a festive tea party.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). She posts @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram.