East Midlands Food

East Midlands Food

Morus nigra…

Among the many interesting features of the gardens at Belgrave Hall Museum are two black mulberry trees – Morus nigra – that are around 250 years old. Valerie Hartley, the Gardens Officer at Belgrave Hall and Gardens, tells me that these trees grow for around 80 years, then fall and continue to grow. Margaret Ellis, one of the daughters of the railway entrepreneur John Ellis, recalled that when her father bought the Hall in 1845,  the ‘old mulberry trees… were still in their pride of venerable vigour, and became at once objects of loving care’.

In 1872 she also recorded  the fall of one of the trees: ‘In the dead of the night, some of us were awaken by a most unwonted sound, but we could not tell what had occasioned it until the morning, when, to our consternation, we found that one of the old mulberry trees had fallen. Only a portion of the noble old tree that must have been growing there fully two hundred years remains; it lies – the curious, ragged, beautiful trunk – across the broad walk, and makes me sad when I look at it… It is a rather remarkable coincidence that it should have fallen so soon after our dear mother’s death. This afternoon we have been sitting under the shade of the remaining tree…’ (Letters & Memorials of Margaret Ellis 1885 - compiled by Eliza Ellis*). Isabel C. Ellis also referred to the trees in her memoirs, Records of Nineteenth Century Leicester (1935), recalling that: ‘Sometimes youth was invited to feast on the mulberries of the old trees, large kitchen aprons being provided as protection from the penetrating stains of the falling berries’.

There is another black mulberry in the gardens of Newarke House Museum in Leicester, along with one of the white variety – Morus alba – planted either side of the ornamental gates in the sundial gardern. As Valerie writes, it is ‘interesting to be able to compare the two. The berries of the white mulberry are sweet but rather bland, whereas the black mulberries are very rich, juicy and leave very incriminating stains on hands!’. 

Mulberry trees were first imported to Britain from China in the 17th century, and descendants remain of a tree named after James I that is said to have been planted in the early 17th Century in Swan Walk in London (now the Chelsea Physic Garden). Cuttings of this ‘King James I’ tree were taken during World War II when the tree was grubbed to make way for an air raid shelter, and the line was successfully continued. 

One of the mulberry trees now

Roman legend has it that the black mulberry owes its existence to Pyramus, who killed himself by falling upon his sword after he and his lover Thisbe were forbidden by their parents to marry, splashing blood on the white berries of  a mulberry tree. Moved by Thisbe’s grief, the gods changed the colour of the berries so that they were red when they grew in the future. This doesn’t account for the survival of the white mulberry – but it is the white rather than the black variety that provides food for silkworms.

The season for harvesting mulberries has long passed for this year, but in anticipation of next summer’s crop you can find some interesting recipes at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/howtogrow/fruitandvegetables/3349362/Mulberries-Juicy-fruits-with-gnarly-character.html, including one for Mulberry Gin or Vodka, said to be good mixed with champagne, and a mulberry version of Bakewell Tart.

* Available at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland (ref. 920 ELL). Many thanks to Valerie Hartley for information about the Belgrave Hall and Newarke Houses trees, and the old photographs.


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A research project that looked at various aspects of food in the East Midlands, linking them with museum displays and objects in the region, and making the results available to as many people as possible in different formats.