Mulberries were one of the many fruits which were enjoyed across the Roman world. Yet in modern Britain, mulberries are quite hard to get hold of. The fruits are extremely delicate when ripe, hindering their cultivation on a commercial scale. In an article bemoaning the rarity of mulberries, food writer Bee Wilson gives the following description –
“There is a fleshy softness to the texture and a fullness to the flavour, like Côtes du Rhône.”
And provides a quote from writer and smallholder Mark Diacono –
“It was the finest fruit I’d ever tasted, yet never in the shops. Imagine a blackberry, a raspberry and a handful of blackcurrants with a teaspoon of sherbet and you’ll have the mulberry
– the perfect fruit.”
Sounds delicious! A single mulberry tree grows in Forbury Gardens, Reading, and this video shows how eating the fruits creates strong memories for locals. My first mulberry was from a tree growing outside Aristotle’s Cave, Naousa in northern Greece, on an archaeobotanical field trip. The fruit was soft, sweet and delicious.
Mulberry trees (Morus nigra) are small spreading trees. They probably originated in Iran, but were cultivated by the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans (Vaughan and Geissler 2009). In Italy, Pliny wrote that little improvement was made to the mulberry tree, and varieties grown in Ostia, Tivoli and Rome were all the same (NH XV.27). The pips of mulberries, like fig, are tough, and would survive well in mineralised (latrine pits) and waterlogged sediments (wells, pits). Yet archaeobotanical studies of settlements across the Roman world have shown that mulberry pips are quite rare.
Mulberry pips have been identified from some sites in Pompeii which have been sampled for plant remains. The fruits pips have been found from the House of the Vestals and the House of Hercules’ Wedding in Pompeii (Ciaraldi 2007), and have also been recovered from the Cardo V sewer in Herculaneum (Rowan pers. comm.). Mulberry pips are also rare in other parts of the Empire, in comparison to fruits such as fig and grape. They have been found from archaeological sites in Cologne, and a few settlements near the Rhine. Livarda has suggested that there may have been a connection between the military and mulberries (Livarda 2008, 117). In Britain, mulberry seeds have been found at London, Silchester and York, indicating that only wealthy urban dwellers had access to these fruits. Mulberry fruits have also been found from the other side of the Roman Empire. Desiccated pips have been recovered from the Roman quarry settlement of Mons Claudianus in the eastern desert of Egypt (Van der Veen 2001, p 194).
The rareness of mulberries in the Roman period was probably because of the same reasons as today – the fruits were very difficult to transport. Galen, the Greek physician, described how the fruits could not be dried (Grant 2000, p 110), whilst in Apicius, it is described how the Romans attempted to preserve the fruits in wine and in their own juice, but with little success (Vehling 1977, p 52).
Most experts on Roman plant remains think that occasional mulberry trees would have grown in urban centres, like Silchester, Cologne and Pompeii, much like in modern Reading. The taste of mulberries may have been on occasional delight for those in the Roman period, as today.
Do you remember mulberries? We would love to hear your memories!
Ciaraldi, M. 2007. People and Plants in Ancient Pompeii : a New Approach to Urbanism from the Microscope Room: the Use of Plant Resources at Pompeii and in the Pompeian Area from the 6th century BC to AD 79. London: Accordia Research Institute, University of London.
Grant, M. 2000. Galen on Food and Diet. London: Routledge.
Livarda, A. 2008. New temptations? Olive, Cherry and Mulberry in Roman and Medieval Europe. In S. Baker, M. Allen, S. Middle, & K. Poole (Eds.), Food & Drink in Archaeology 1 (pp. 73–83). Totnes: Prospect Books.
Van der Veen, M. 2001. The botanical evidence. In D. Peacock & V. Maxfield (Eds.), Survey and Excavations at Mons Claudianus 1987-1993, ii, The Excavations: Part 1 (pp. 175–222). Cairo: Institute Francais d’Archaeologie Orientale du Caire.
Vaughan, J. and Geissler, C. 2009. The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vehling, J. 1977. Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome: a Bibliography, Critical Review, and Translation of the Ancient Book Known as Apicius de re coquinaria: Now for the First Time Rendered into English. New York: Dover Publications.