Monday, September 18, 2006

A barberrying we will go…

Today, September 18th …

Whatever happened to barberries? They appear in a many, many cookbook recipes from medieval times onwards, then start to fade away in the second half of the eighteenth century, and virtually disappear by the nineteenth. Yet they are ubiquitous in nature, and one or other of the hundreds of species of the genus Berberis appears over a wide range of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The vitamin C-rich, colourful berries are free for the taking, providing you are prepared to battle the thorny bushes. You also need a strategy for the severely sour taste. Isabella Beeton had a poor opinion of the barberry, saying that they were “a fruit of such great acidity that even the birds refuse to eat it”.

One person who thought it was a worthwhile exercise was Henry David Thoreau, who was out a-gathering on this day in 1856.

“By boat to Conantum, barberrying. … Gathered just half a bushel of barberries on hill in less than two hours, or three pecks to-day and yesterday in less than three hours. It is singular that I have so few, if any, competitors. I have the pleasure also of bringing them home in my boat. They will be more valuable this year, since apples and cranberries are scarce. These barberries are more than the apple crop to me, for we shall have them on the table daily all winter, while the two barrels of apples which we lay up will not amount to so much.”

Historic cookbooks show that the “poor man’s redcurrant” was a common ingredient in many meat and fish dishes where a piquant note or a colourful garnish were required – the kid pye or boiled sturgeon on your dinner table for example, as well as in sugary confections. Thoreau does not tell us how the barberries were to be prepared for his winter table, but his notes suggest they would be preserved in some way.

Recipes for the Day ….

Here is a selection of nineteenth century recipes which Thoreau might have enjoyed.

To Pickle Barberries.
Take white wine vinegar and water, of each an equal quantity; to every quart of this liquor, put in half a pound of common sugar, then pick the worst of your barberries and put into this liquor, and the best into glasses; boil your pickle with the worst of your barberries, and skim it very clean. Boil it till it looks of a fine colour, and let it stand to be cold; then strain it through a cloth, wringing it to get all the colour you can from the barberries. Let it stand to settle, then pour it clear into the glasses. In some of the pickle boil a little fennell; when cold, put a bit at the top of the pot or glass, and cover it close with a bladder and leather. (The Frugal Housewife, or Complete Woman Cook … ‘. Sussannah Carter; 1803)

To prepare Barberries for Tartlets.
Pick barberries that have no stones, from the stalks, and to every pound weigh three quarters of a pound of lump-sugar; put the fruit into a stone jar, and either set it on a hot hearth or in a sauce-pan of water, and let them simmer very slowly till soft; put them and the sugar into a preserving-pan, and boil them gently fifteen minutes. Use no metal but silver. (New System of Domestic Cookery; Maria Rundell, 1807.)

Barberry Ketchup.
Three quarts of barberries, stewed and strained; four quarts of cranberries, one cupful of raisins, a large quince and four small onions, all stewed with a quart of water, and strained. Mix these ingredients with the barberries, and add half a cupful of vinegar, three-fourths of a cupful of salt, two cupfuls of sugar, one dessert-spoonful of ground clove and one of ground allspice, two table-spoonfuls of black pepper, two of celery seed, and one of ground mustard, one teaspoonful of cayenne, one of cinnamon and one of ginger, and a nutmeg. Let the whole boil one minute. If too thick, add vinegar or water. With the quantities given, about three quarts of ketchup can be made. (Miss Parloa's New Cook Book and Marketing Guide; 1882)

Tomorrow’s Story …

The King’s Spinach.

Quotation for the Day …

Well, Art is Art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And East is East and West is West and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, uh... Now you tell me what you know. Groucho Marx.

13 comments:

Gillian said...

I don't know what has happened to barberries in Europe, but in Australia you buy them dried in Middle Eastern groceries. I snack on them from time to time and I use them in cooking quite a lot. Lovely ingredient.

The Old Foodie said...

Thanks Gillian - I'll track some down this week. Are they obviously labelled as 'barberries', or do they go by another name?. They sound like they would be fantastic alternative to the raisins I usually put in the Chickpea salad I often make.

burekaboy said...

they also go by the name zereshk and, like Gillian said, can be found in middle eastern stores (a common Iranian/Persian ingredient). usually they go into rice dishes and you can get them dried. they can be expensive.

your blog is always full of fun and interesting items ;-p

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Burekaboy. Thanks for this, I am on a serious hunt for them now. I love finding out about a "new" ingredient. I stopped by your blog and tried to leave a comment but there was some problem ???.

Sally said...

I have two shrubs growing in my front yard - want me to send you some? LOL Actually, I'd forgotten about barberries. They make a nice, pretty red tea. They are very sour though, so use lots of sugar. You've got some good recipes for them here. Thanks!

Gillian said...

Fresh barberries in Australia? Now *that's* something I wish I could taste. I've only ever had the dried.

I love their sourness. They go well in little savoury pancakes served with sour cream and they are *outstanding* with red meat. But yes, you can't just use them to replace sweet dried fruit.

Thanks for the name, burekaboy. I always forget how to spell it nad I just combined three different lots into the same jar, which means the labels are gone.

Sally said...

Gillian - I'm in Iowa...United States. They don't grow wild here, but they do in Pennsylvania, which is where I first experienced eating them fresh. Staghorn sumac berries, when they turn red in the fall, are also very tasty as a tea. Kinda lemony. Oh, and ... oh, never mind. I should just do a post on all this. LOL Sorry O.F.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Sally - I love all this debate. I look forward to your post on the topic!
Janet

Sally said...

Hi O.F. I would except something is up with Blogger. I've been trying to post for two days and it says "no such account" or some such nonsense. Plus, I can't upload my pictures. Very frustrating! I think it might have something to do with the "beta" Blogger (which I haven't signed up for). I'll just content myself to wait and see.

kathryn said...

Barberry is also used in Australia in herbal medicine, although it's the root and bark we use, not the berries. In fact I have a bottle of barberry liquid extract in my clinic! It's pretty potent tasting stuff, although you only need a small amount of the concentrated extract to have an effect.

I use it for liver and digestive problems. It's a really mild laxative, bitter digestive stimulant and gently works on liver and gall bladeer clearance. Mrs Grieve talks about using it for "functional derangement of the liver", a description I love!

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Kathryn - the idea of food as medicine is not new, is it? I didnt know that the bark was used medicinally. That is one of the great things about blogging - the comments mean you usually learn something.
Janet

Russ Cohen said...

I just happened upon this blog entry while processing some Barberries (B. vulgaris) that I picked in Camillus, NY last weekend.

I also find lots of the B. vulgaris bushes in Middlesex and Essex Counties in Mass.

I mostly make jelly, butter (like apple butter), and fruit leather with them.

One time I accidentally made wine with them, and it is the best wine I have ever tasted.

-- Russ Cohen
http://users.rcn.com/eatwild/bio.htm

Russ Cohen said...

I just happened upon this blog entry while processing some Barberries (B. vulgaris) that I picked in Camillus, NY last weekend.

I also find lots of the B. vulgaris bushes in Middlesex and Essex Counties in Mass.

I mostly make jelly, butter (like apple butter), and fruit leather with them.

One time I accidentally made wine with them, and it is the best wine I have ever tasted.

-- Russ Cohen
http://users.rcn.com/eatwild/bio.htm