It's been a working garden in one form or another since the 17th century, there's a Mulberry tree in Bradgate park (one time home of Lady Jane Grey) that is supposed to have been one of the 15 bought to this country by Sir Walter Raleigh. In a very unscientific way I'd like to speculate that this tree is almost as old, and maybe even a daughter of the Bradgate tree. The museum tree as it stands looks like just one small surviving part of a really old one, it has a siren-like pull for me.
I've had fruit from it before, once with the permission of the gardener, and once without actually asking anyone if it's okay. The gardeners are normally quite amenable if you can catch them, but the desk staff inside the museum have sucked in a breath and talked about health and safety (mostly in regard to some ferocious stinging nettles around the tree with a sideline in doubt as to whether the fruit is edible). There was no gardener around yesterday so working on the principle that it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission I started picking - it was alright whilst I was under the tree, you can't be seen from the outside, but the berries are only just ripe and I was spotted working my round to the back of it.
The attendants were lovely, they would have been well within their rights to ask me to leave, but didn't, and let me carry on for which I'm really grateful. I managed to get 600g of mulberries, which filled the tub I had and seemed a good place to stop trespassing on the museum's hospitality.
The reason mulberries are not a familiar fruit to us now (the attendants had no idea what they were) is that they're not the easiest thing to handle. They're very delicate and very ready to fall off the tree and stain anything they touch a deep purple. They don't keep well, are full of seeds, tend to attract small spiders and a ton of other little bugs, and get themselves a fie covering of web tangled up in the little hooks that cover them. The season for picking them is quite short too, so they're easy to miss if you can't grow them yourself.
I've a handful of recipes for mulberries, mostly from Mark Diacono's books, but as with blackberries and raspberries I find the pips quite annoying, and the one year I made mulberry vodka I was put off by the number of dead things floating in it. They can't really be washed for fear of losing too much of the juice or diluting it. In the end, a jelly seemed like the best use of my prize - I promised some to the museum people if it worked out.
The branches on old mulberries droop towards the ground making a leafy sanctuary, inside this tree smelt amazing - a combination of bindweed sap where I'd pulled it apart to stop it climbing all over the tree, crushed nettles, and mulberry leaves and berries. It also ticked with a sound that I hope was not ominous - the bark was clearly full of insects getting on with their business.
I don't often get to pick the fruit I end up cooking, and it does change how much I value it, it also gave me more time to think about exactly how I'd use it. Mulberries are a relatively low pectin fruit, they need some help to set, and because of the smallish quantity of berries I had, it made sense to use apples to bulk it out as well as add pectin, rather than relying on jam sugar. When I got home with my prize I had a good look through 'The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened' as he's a similar vintage to the garden and tree.
It turns out that in between his career as a soldier, sailor, pirate, philosopher, medical theorist, diplomat, bibliophile, collector, mathematician, writer, alchemist, scientist, cook, and lover he didn't have anything to say about mulberries, but he has plenty to say about jelly. Certainly enough to make me feel that any I might make would be a suitable hommage to this tree's long life.
The advantage of a jelly is that it's boiled, strained, and boiled again so apart from picking over the fruit to make sure it's reasonably clean and not rotten. You don't have to do much to it or worry about what might be lurking in it (all obvious bugs were safely removed with the help of an elder leaf and left safely in the garden).
To my 600g of berries, I added 400g of Bramley apple roughly chopped to make a kilo of fruit, put it in a pan with 400ml of water - using the quantities suggested by Pam Corbin in her River Cottage preserving book. She does mention mulberries in a handy fruit chart which indicates if you'll need more pectin and how much water to add for different kinds of fruits along with other useful tips for making an excellent jelly. I then bought this to a boil and simmered it gently for around 40 minutes.
When it was properly mushy I strained it through a muslin cloth (weighed down from the top with a plate to extract more juice without squeezing the fruit - another Pam hint) and considered reboiling the leftover mush to extract a little bit more juice - but didn't. I wanted the flavour to be as strong as possible. After a couple of hours straining I added the juice of a lemon to the liquid I had - about 700ml's in total and weighed out sugar at the ratio of 450g to every 600ml of liquid. Following Pam's advice I bought the liquid to a boil before adding the sugar - Sir Kenelm actually says the same, he also uses lemons in his jelly making. And then boiled rapidly until it looked thick enough to start doing wrinkle tests. When I was happy (about 10-15 mins in) I took it off the boil, skimmed it, and potted it into sterilised jars - I got 2 and a 1/2 of them.
I'm pleased with the results the lemon juice combats the sweetness of the sugar a little, and the earthy, cabernet franc wine flavour of the mulberries comes through well - the apples don't interfere with it. The museum attendant was delighted with the jelly and scones I took them. Searching around online I've found a few recipes that use different herbs and spices, but I like the emphasis on the fruit flavour here and if I had enough jelly it would be an easy matter to reheat a jar of it with some extras if I wanted. I might consider adding mint which I think would emphasise the winey notes of the mulberries, and I'd try this with apple cider vinegar to make a sharper condiment too. Overall it's an excellent way to make the most of a smallish quantity of mulberries if you're lucky enough to find some.