A Taste of Nature
The taste of beauty, the taste of magic
Story by Mark Vorderbruggen
Photo by Anna Dean
East Texas woods in the fall always bring to mind Homer’s repeated line of a “wine-dark sea.” Almost everywhere are the magenta clusters of beautyberries, fruit of the native Callicarpa americana bush, sometimes also called French mulberry. There’s nothing else like these in the woods, with their bunches of small, BB-sized berries clustered in lime-sized groupings at the outer three to five leaf/stem junctions. The understory bushes themselves can reach about 8 feet tall and a similar width in the moist, shaded soil beneath both pines and hardwoods. The leaves grow to the size of a small/medium hand, are slightly fuzzy and grow in pairs opposite each other along the branches.
The dark purple color of the berries seems to strike fear in the caveman part of many people’s (especially moms’) brains. It seems almost unnatural and dangerous, like the radioactive goo that creates monsters and zombies in sci-fi movies. Something that color can’t be good to eat! Well, to be perfectly honest, if you eat them raw, their taste ranges from insipid to somewhat medicinal. I’ve yet to find a person whose first reaction to these berries is “Yum, give me more!” Everyone seems quite content to leave these fruits for the forest animals. That’s because they don’t know about beautyberry magic.
Fairy tales are filled with magical transformations, usually from something plain into something beautiful. Beautyberries are real-world magic. Something happens to them when they are cooked down into a syrup, jelly or wine. What was bland suddenly becomes exotic and stunning. Amazing flavors appear that weren’t in the raw fruit, with the results reminding me of a mix of rose petals and champagne. As a chemist, I suppose I should chalk this change up to some form of Maillard reaction between the sugars and amino acids of this fruit … but sometimes science needs to be set aside, as it’s unable to capture the breathtaking, miraculous change that occurs. If there’s magic in this world, then the effect of cooking and condensing down beautyberries is the best proof.
Beautyberry jelly is by far the easiest way to cast this spell. Grab any blackberry jelly recipe you can find and just replace the amount of blackberries with beautyberry fruit. You’ll probably have to add about 10 percent more pectin to ensure it jells up properly; otherwise, you’ll likely end up with beautyberry syrup. But that’s not a bad thing, either, especially when you pour the syrup over an ice cream sandwich. That’s downright decadent … and absolutely wonderful. The jelly ranges in color from light lavender to dark magenta, depending on the ripeness of the berries and how long it’s cooked.
When harvesting the berries, take them from branches where all the clusters have turned magenta — the darker, the better. They are easy to strip off the bushes when ripe. Once you get home, rinse them really well to remove any of the non-berry material they collect in the woods. At this point, you can use them right away or freeze them up to six months. If possible, vacuum-pack the berries before freezing to keep them freshest.