I first saw them in 1989, I think. The year my brother got lost in the crowds at Venna Lake. Amma was frantic and I can still remember the way my heart pounded inside me while the family looked for him. We found him a few minutes later, at the end of a grim police Hawaldar’s hand, crying in fear. Amma was severely reprimanded by the policeman for not being attentive enough (mothers are easy to judge).
We returned to Hotel Girivihar–every middle class Maharashtrian family (or so it seemed) stayed at the Girivihar–my parents stayed there on their honeymoon and we were back as a family about a decade later. In those days, Mahabaleshwar was much quieter–there weren’t as many shops, and there certainly weren’t as many people. You had to walk around long stretches if you had to get anywhere. “Anywhere” was basically the Venna Lake for an hour in a boat that you had to manually work, tender young carrots and Corn Pattice (white corn, not yellow) on the banks. Strawberry and Cream in the market, of course, because Mapro wasn’t what it is today. In those days, there wasn’t any soy cream, either, so you actually got strawberries and “cream” in the real sense of the term–much, much more delightful, I assure you. In the courtyard of the Girivihar, just outside our cottage, on the way to the restaurant, was a Mulberry tree. You could sit under it on the round, brick tree-bench that banyan trees are more popular for. The mulberry didn’t offer as much shade or as much enlightenment, I’m sure; but the fortress certainly made the tree a point of focus. A few berries lay scattered on the brickwork; my maternal grandmother, Aai, picked the least squishy one and gently blew on it to rid it of any apparent dirt. “Try it,” she said, and offered it to me, her blue-grey eyes bright with anticipation. I popped it right in and almost immediately spat it back out. It was ridiculously sour. A few laughs later, I was then offered a deep purple-black one with an assurance of sweetness. This one, I quite enjoyed. It became a thing, then, to pick the fallen fruit as we waited for a table at the restaurant for every meal. I wonder why it never struck us to climb the tree and pluck some fresh ones.
I went back to Girivihar purely for nostalgia a few years ago, and the food was a great disappointment. The mulberry tree was still there–as if waiting for me to introduce my daughter to its fruit.
At the supermarket the other day, I saw boxes of Trikaya’s fresh mulberries being stacked up, so of course, I picked a couple. I couldn’t stop myself in the rickshaw ride back home, so popped a few in right away, and then promptly made a jam from the rest the moment I got home. It didn’t take much time and it certainly brought me back to the kitchen and to a very happy place in my head.
- 3 cups of fresh mulberries, stemmed
- 2 cups of sugar
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1 teaspoon clear vodka (optional)
- Put a ceramic or glass saucer in the freezer before you start. This will help you gauge the doneness of the jam later. It needs to be very cold by the time the jam is done (about 25 minutes).
- Place all the ingredients except the vodka in a thick-bottomed pan and mix well. Leave to macerate for about an hour–this helps to draw out the juices and helps cook the jam uniformly without burning.
- Place on medium heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. Once it does, add the vodka and turn up the heat to full and stir continuously until thickened. The vodka helps to clarify the jam and give it a sheen. It also helps prevent crystallisation later.
- Drop a small blob of jam on the cold saucer and allow to sit for half a minute. Then, swirl gently; if the jam forms a thin skin or moves very slowly when swirled, it is done. If it flows too easily, it needs a few more minutes. Remember, the jam will thicken further as it cools so don’t wait for it to be the exact thickness that you like on your toast.
- Turn off the heat and allow the jam to cool slightly. Keep your sterilised glass bottles with a metal cap on the ready. Lade the hot jam into the dry jars right to the top. Screw on the metal lid tightly and leave to cool. Refrigerate once cooled, especially if you live in a humid climate.
- Ideally, mature the jam for a few months before opening the jar for a fuller flavour.