Milan, 12 December 2018
A couple of days ago, when we were down at the sea in Liguria, my wife and I went for a walk on the Monte di Portofino, one of our favourite places to go walking. I’ve written earlier about other walks on this mountain, and it’s always a joy to go back and sample the different paths which wind around the mountain which stands at the centre of this promontory jutting out into the sea.
One of the pleasures of walking there, apart from having the sea ever-present in the background, is experiencing the different biomes that co-exist on the mountain. On the slopes to the north-east, where the conditions are generally shadier, cooler and more humid, a mixed forest grows with oak trees dominating and the undergrowth mostly consisting of ferns, brambles, and ivy.
On the southwestern slopes, on the other hand, which give onto the sea, and where the conditions are generally hotter and dryer, and the soils poorer and rockier, a Mediterranean maquis of low, scrubby bushes and trees predominates.
Within short spaces, as the paths twist and turn around the mountain, one can pass from a landscape which would not be out of place in the UK to one which could not be anywhere but on the Mediterranean.
They were dropping off trees like this.
The fruits were an intense red and looked a little like strawberries.
This is what they look like on the tree.
When you open them, they have a lovely golden interior.
I asked my wife what these fruit were. Corbezzole, she replied, with the tree being the corbezzolo. Well, that didn’t help me much, so I checked what the English names are. Internet informed me that the tree is called the strawberry tree. Given the look of the fruit, that certainly makes sense, although what is the fruit of the tree then called? Just “fruit of the strawberry tree”, it seems, or “strawberry fruit”, which is a bit unsatisfactory. But then this is not a problem of nomenclature which the British have to face because the tree doesn’t grow naturally in the UK. As this map shows, its favourite haunts are the rim of the Mediterranean, with an extension along the southwestern Atlantic coast of France.
So I shall adopt the Italian name here and simply call the fruits corbezzole.
I asked my wife if corbezzole were edible, and she replied that her mother used to eat them. Thus comforted, I plucked two off a tree and tried them. I found them somewhat granular and not particularly sweet. I then tried two which had dropped off their tree. I still found them granular, but now they were sweeter, although the sweetness was weak and evanescent. They were also rather mushy, rather like persimmon which I’ve written about earlier. Pliny the Elder mentioned the strawberry tree in his Natural History, and his comment on the fruit was “The fruit is held in no esteem, and this is the reason for its name being that a person will only eat one” (the fruit’s Latin name is unedo, a shortening “unum edo”, “I eat one”; boy, those Romans were real jokers!). On the basis of the four corbezzole I ate as we walked along, I side with Pliny on this one.
I suspect that the corbezzole’s weakly sweet taste explains why I have never seen them being sold in a supermarket or a greengrocer’s shop in Italy. I can’t see people getting terribly excited about the taste. That being said, patient selection over centuries could no doubt have led to a more enduringly sweet fruit, much as it has with many of the other fruit we happily munch on. But here I think another factor comes into play: the incredible softness of the corbezzole when ripe. They are so soft that it is almost impossible to hold them without damaging them. Their softness also means that they are quite mushy to chew on, which I’m sure many people don’t appreciate much.
This softness and mushiness means that a way people commonly use corbezzole is to make jams: just mash it all up and no-one will notice the mushiness.
This seems to be a strictly homemade product; I could find no mention of a commercial jam on the internet. For any of my readers who are interested in making this jam, here is a thumbnail recipe. Put the corbezzole in a pan, crush them a little, bring the pan to a boil, boil for 10 minutes. The corbezzole should have become a puree by now. Pass the puree through a fine sieve, to get rid of all those little granules. Put the puree back into the pan, add sugar (1 gm for every 4 of puree), add cinnamon if you want, heat the mix, stirring continuously, until it’s thickened sufficiently.
Various people living in the Mediterranean region have also made alcoholic drinks with corbezzole. One of the better known is the Portuguese fruit brandy Aguardente de Medronhos (so called because the fruit is called medronho in Portuguese). Should any readers be interested in making this particular fruit brandy, here are some brief instructions. Collect 7 to 10 kilos of fruit (that will make make one litre of brandy). Put them into a barrel and let them ferment for 2-3 months, making sure to always keep them humid. Using a copper alambique, heat the fermented mess over a low fire. The distillate is your Aguardente de Medronhos. You’ve made a good batch if you can smell the fruit after you have put a little of the Aguardente on your skin and let the alcohol evaporate off.
I don’t get to say much about Albania in my posts, so I want to make pitch here for the Albanians’ equivalent fruit brandy, raki kocimareje (kocimare being the Albanian name for the fruit). Unfortunately, I could find no photo of it on the internet, even in the Albanian pages of Wikipedia. Nevertheless, I urge my readers to support the Albanian economy by buying this firewater whenever they have the occasion.
Another approach is to marinate the corbezzole in alcohol. Here’s a recipe from Sardinia, which includes lemon rind and cloves. Put the corbezzole, the lemon rind (just the yellow part!) and cloves in a container. Cover with alcohol. Leave in a cool, dark place for a month to steep. Prepare a syrup of sugar and water. Strain the contents of the container. Add the syrup. Let the mix stand, in a cool, dark place as before, for two weeks. Strain again. Bottle. (I shall ask our Sardinian cleaner if she is familiar with this concoction; she once brought us a bottle of her own home-made limoncello).
Of course, if readers want to try any of these recipes, or if they just want to taste the fruit, they will need to head out to their nearest patch of Mediterranean maquis to find it. And they have to go some time between late October and mid December. For instance, if they had been in the region of Ancona on 28 October last, the feast day of Saints Simon and Jude, they could have joined the worthy citizens of that city on their annual hike out to the nearby Monte Conero, a mountain which, rather like Monte di Portofino, juts out into the sea, in this case the Adriatic Sea.
The mountain is rich in strawberry trees (so rich that its name derives from the Greek name for the corbezzola, kòmaros, while the coat of arms of nearby Ancona sports an arm holding a branch of the tree with fruit).
Nowadays, this is just a hike like any other, with the difference that there is a bit of corbezzole picking. But there was a time when the Anconese would spend the day not only gathering and eating corbezzole, but also wrapping young branches of the tree around their heads, singing lustily, and generally behaving in a rather Bacchanalian way. I suspect we see here the remains of an old Pagan feast dressed up in Christian clothing.
Alternatively, my readers could go to Killarney or Lough Gill on Ireland’s western coast.
In those two spots, relict populations of strawberry trees have hung on. There was a time, some 5 to 8,000 years ago, when temperatures in Europe were higher than today and the strawberry tree’s range extended into northern Europe. But then, as temperatures dropped, the tree retreated southward, leaving behind these two embattled outposts.
Wherever they decide to go, corbezzole-pickers will find themselves faced with an interesting puzzle: trees covered with both flowers and fruit.
I was certainly puzzled, because I’m used to fruit trees flowering in Spring and fruiting in late Summer, early Autumn. I have since learned that the strawberry tree does it differently. It flowers in late Autumn, with the fruit then developing from a pollinated flower. But the fruit takes its own sweet time to develop, arriving at maturation a full year later, just when the next batch of flowers bursts forth. I’m sure there is a very clever biological reason why the strawberry tree has chosen this cycle, but I haven’t yet managed to find it out. If there are any readers out there who know, I’ll be very happy to hear from them.
The flowers are really quite charming, coming in clusters of small, white, bell-shaped flowers.
Bees love the flowers and will home in on them – if they happen to still be around in this late period of the year; bees will not leave their hives if temperatures drop below 5-10°C. If they are around, they will make honey from the corbezzole nectar they gather.
This honey has a certain reputation, simply because of its rarity: some years you get it, some years you don’t. But our friend Pliny the Elder was not terribly enthusiastic about the honey, writing that it has a rather bitter taste. In case any of my readers are beginning to think that Pliny is a bit of a sourpuss, I should say that others echo his sentiment. In this case, I can only report what I have read, since I have no independent experience of eating the honey.
The fact that both (white) flowers and (red) fruit are present simultaneously on an evergreen tree meant that Italian patriots imbued the tree with great symbolic importance in the decades leading up to the country’s unification in the 1860s. For red, white, and green were the colours of Italy’s tricolour flag of unification!
Patriotic poets in particular wove the tree into poems which were thinly veiled proclamations of the coming unification of Italy which they ardently hoped was imminent. I won’t bore readers with their purple prose. At the risk of being flippant, I much prefer another edible symbol of the Italian tricolour. It is reported that some years after unification a canny pizza maker in Naples realized that his pizza, made with (red) tomatoes, (white) mozzarella, and (green) basil, proclaimed the colors of the new Italian flag and so he named it Pizza Margherita, after the wife of Victor Emmanuel I, first king of unified Italy.
I don’t know if it’s the patriotic overtones or simply because the pizza is so yummy, but Pizza Margherita has remained a constant in the average Italian’s life.
But back to the strawberry tree. I read with sadness and anger that the delegates of the world’s nations cannot agree on a text committing everyone to limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C. I might weep, but strawberry trees will no doubt be rubbing their woody hands together at the thought that higher temperatures will allow them to march back north again and recapture the lands that were once theirs.
Monte di Portofino: https://www.tripadvisor.it/Attraction_Review-g187827-d2356844-Reviews-Parco_Naturale_Regionale_di_Portofino-Santa_Margherita_Ligure_Italian_Riviera_Lig.html
Forest, Monte di Portofino: http://www.parcoportofino.com/parcodiportofino/it/eventdetail.page?contentId=EVN12955#.XBAxoHRKhPY
Mediterranean maquis, Monte di Portofino: https://montiliguri.weebly.com/promontorio-di-portofino.html
Corbezzole on the ground: our photo
Strawberry tree: our photo
Close-up of corbezzole on the ground: my photo
Close-up of corbezzole on the tree: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Corbezzola interior: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Range of the strawberry tree: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Corbezzola jam: https://blog.giallozafferano.it/giusy89/marmellata-di-corbezzoli/
Aguardiente de Medronho: https://www.uvinum.it/acquavite/aguardente-de-medronho-premium-50cl
Sardinian corbezzole liqueur: https://www.lacambusadeisapori.com/tare-50-cl/526-liquore-di-corbezzolo-artigianale-di-sardegna-confezione-medium.html
Monte Conero: http://www.marchemaraviglia.it/struttura/71/hotel-monteconero
Ancona coat of arms: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Strawberry trees on Lough Killarney: https://www.mindenpictures.com/search/preview/strawberry-tree-arbutus-unedo-habit-growing-beside-lough-killarney-county/0_80146177.html
Strawberry tree fruit and flower: https://www.giardinaggio.org/giardino/piante-da-giardino/corbezzolo-pianta.asp
Strawberry tree flowers: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo
Corbezzolo honey: https://www.imprentas.eu/it/miele-sardo-e-confetture/158-miele-di-corbezzolo.html
Italian Tricolour: https://www.tempostretto.it/news/risorgimento-tavola-rotonda-messina-sicilia-dopo-unit-d-italia.html
Pizza Margherita: https://www.groupon.it/deals/taverna-del-cuore-6