Strawberry Tree – Arbousier
In autumn you can’t miss this tree when you come across it. The fruits are so noticeable, initially green, then yellow, orange and finally red. They resemble strawberries, hence the name. As the strawberry tree has fruits and flowers at the same time, the flowers becoming next year’s fruit, it was considered in classical times to be immortal. It’s an evergreen shrub or tree, normally between 2 – 5 m tall. The bark is red brown, the leaves are oblong, toothed and dark green in colour. The fruits, as well as the flowers, hang in bunches.
Traditionally the roots were used to treat high blood pressure. The leaves contain a lot of tannin and arbutin, which have an astringent and antiseptic effect and could be used to treat urinary tract infections and rheumatism. It was also used in the tanning of leather.
The fruits are edible, and eaten when they are red but not soft. They taste slightly acidic and sweet at the same time, but too ripe they become floury. The ‘unedo’ in the name means ‘just once’ which refers to the fact that if you’ve tried the fruit once, you are not likely to try it again. It is probably a question of taste, but I rather like them. Made into compote or confiture they are quite delicious. In Portugal an ‘eau de vie’ is made from the berries and in Corsica beehives are placed among the Arbutus unedo trees for a special-tasting honey. The fruits are rich in sugar and as they ripen, they start fermenting on the tree. The birds absolutely love them and, having gorged themselves on the fermented fruit, they have problems flying straight!
Ingredients: 1 kg red Arbutus fruit; 500 g cane sugar; 4 tbs orange liqueur; 1/4 tsp each of cinnamon, ginger, mace and nutmeg. Wash the fruit and slowly boil with a little water until soft (stirring from time to time). Press through a Mouli or sieve then reheat with the sugar, spices and liqueur. Simmer until a drop mounds on a chilled plate. Put in sterilized jars and seal.
Bibliography: Sauvage et comestibles – Marie-Claude Paume; Arbutus unedo – Wikipedia; Mediterranean Wild Flowers – Marjorie Blamey/Christopher Grey-Wilson.