by Kaveri Ponnapa
The sweetest tastes of summer come to us under hot, open skies and enclosed corridors of whispering greenery. Aimless rambles turn into intense treasure hunts when you find a single, ripe wild berry. Your hand reaches out, you taste its wild, sweet flavours and then suddenly, life is filled with purpose and excitement as you comb the surroundings for tiny, telltale splashes of colour in the dusty greenery that announce its companions. No exotic dessert or elaborate confectionary holds the same delight as naturally ripened fruit and berries plucked off a tree or shrub and popped into your mouth. The dazzling flavours and colours, concentrated by bright, hard sunshine seem to capture the essence of the season in a way that nothing else can.
The hills and slopes of Coorg are particularly blessed with a wide range of indigenous fruits and berries that appear to have been created solely for the delight of young children, birds –and the home cook. Summer berries and children are made to be best friends, and the Coorg home cook fills every available bottle and jar, with delicious preserves and jams that bring pleasure through the year.
No matter how elaborate the spread at the dining table, invariably, after breakfast or lunch, we roamed the slopes and lanes on the lookout for some delicious treat to pop into our mouths. We foraged quite randomly, wandering into a small clump of trees that had a lovely little stream flowing through, passing a tempting jamun tree where we felled the fruit with stones, provoking the elderly ladies who owned the property into complaining to our grandparents about our unruly behaviour. The hedgerows that bordered all the nearby lanes offered opportunities for prized berries. Considering all these expeditions were unsupervised, it amazes me that none of us ate something toxic –but there were always older children to warn us off those plants, and the knowledge filtered down. Those early, hoarded caches of berries and fruits that we gorged on until we were satiated seem to have influenced my palate subtly. Vivid taste memories of those sharp, bright flavours I am sure are the reason that, to this day, whenever we eat out, I quickly scan the menu for a fruit based dessert. It seems to me the timeless way to end a meal, with the clear flavours of fresh fruit.
One of the delights of the Coorg summer is a South American wanderer from Peru, now a permanent resident on our hills and slopes: the Cape gooseberry. It is the prettiest, perfectly round, golden yellow or orange fruit that comes encased in a tissue thin calyx that makes it look like a miniature Chinese lantern –which is one of the many names by which it goes. Physalis peruviana flourished in South Africa where the 1902 ‘Diary of a Cape Housekeeper’ noted that a preserve made with its fruit was much appreciated by visitors from England. And that is where the ‘cape’ in its name comes from, not the attractively gauzy hull that covers the plump berry. Once it had established itself, the Cape gooseberry flourished in Coorg and became very popular in jam making, a gentle throwback to its South African heritage: in the early 1950’s, the wife of one of the English coffee planters in the district was known for the profuse hedges and walkways of Cape gooseberries she cultivated, and the quantities of jams and sauces she bottled and sold.
Smooth, polished to a shine and waxy, gummatte panne as it is known in Coorg is juicy, secretive and delicious. The green berry hangs encased in a pale green calyx that turns a transparent, veined buff colour as the berry ripens to a glowing orange: the contrast could not be more perfect. Small flashes of orange show through the rustling, papery cases and sometimes an entire berry hangs suspended like a tiny orange sun. With its wings twisted or folded back, it turns into an exotic tropical insect. Gummatte panne is lusciously juicy –the Hindi name, ras bhari is a perfect description. It bursts with a single bite, flooding your mouth with sweetness and an engaging sharpness at the same time, summery and sparkling.
It makes the most beautiful preserve. If you can hold back a little on the sugar, you are rewarded with the natural, lively tart character of the fruit that will find its way into your preserving jar, leaving you with a refreshing aftertaste. The juicy berries cook obligingly quickly and with very little effort, you have a pan full of softened fruit and thousands of pinprick seeds bound together in a smooth, attractive apricot coloured glaze. The cooked skins are surprisingly delicious, adding texture along with the galaxies of tiny, crunchy seeds, throwing out a teasing hint of aam papad (mango leather). The preserve goes beautifully with whipped cream, ice cream, goat’s cheese and crackers, and tarts. Dipped into chocolate, its stem and crisp calyx intact, it makes a simple, very attractive summer dessert.
The name gummatte panne refers to the round shape of the fruit, and it’s often used as an endearment for plump little children. In my mind, this berry will forever be tied up with up with memories of summers with my children when they were very small, and we imagined they would remain that way forever. The magic of wandering around with a tiny hand held in your large one, searching for something in the garden –the look of amazement and delight when they spotted a fruit or berry and quickly plucked it for themselves. Or when they rushed up to you excitedly, their cheeks flushed with the heat and pressed a few hot, sticky, rather squashed gummatte panne berries into your hands, thrilled with themselves, and watched carefully for your reaction as you made a little ceremony of peeling back the crackling wrapping and placed a single bright berry in your mouth –all the sweetness of summer –and life –came rushing at you in that one single moment.
Photo Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa
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