“STOP! STOP… IN GOD’S NAME! YOU’RE KILLING HER!” the stranger shouted as he pushed his way through the crowd of shrieking children, jumping up and down in seeming panic and helplessness, almost hiding the gory scene. As they burst through the gate all he and his mate had been able to glimpse was a woman covered in blood. A man pinned her to the ground and much of her blood was spattered over him, too. His hands dripped with it as they clasped her neck.
Desperately, the strangers pushed their way through the hysterical children, intent on getting to the woman… if it wasn’t already too late. When they could get a clear view, they were dumbfounded. The woman was certainly crying, but so was the man… with laughter. A rapid glance around the children’s faces and a sudden tuning-in to their voices, made the strangers realise that no sadistic crime was taking place. These kids were shrieking with laughter.
“Ohh… bloody hell,” said one of the men. “It’s not blood… ”
“… it’s bloody mulberries!” finished the other.
My grandparents and their ‘army’ of kids were picking mulberries from their tree, out the back of the house, when my grandmother, renown for her wicked sense of humour, decided to sneak up behind her man and put her dripping ‘mulberry-picking’ hands over his eyes, with a cheeky “guess who?”
With an outraged roar, he dropped his bucket and set off in hot pursuit of the culprit… with the whole tribe following, yelling their encouragement. What a moment – Dad chasing Mum – certainly an event to scream about. He didn’t catch her until the second time around the house—in the front yard! Probably not as harsh as a rugby tackle, but certainly she was down on the ground as he sat on her and scrubbed her face and neck with the ‘blood’ of handfuls of mulberries. When everyone could finally stop laughing, the valiant rescuers were sent on their way with a pail of fruit for their wives. How clearly I can see it all, though that one happened in the 1920’s. Was ours a repeat of kinds?
Our farm mulberry bush was still a pup, compared to my grandparents’ mighty tree, as described by my Mum. When you’ve seen a mulberry bush you have no doubt why the words of the old English ditty say—’Round and round the mulberry bush… ‘ As our boss Sam and ourselves ‘went round’ our bush, with ever-increasing ‘bloody’ hands, the story of my grandparents returned to tempt me.
“Gotcha!” I gleefully shouted, as I anointed Kanute and Sam with my ‘bloody’ handprints… and then dissolved into laughter. What a sight! Two bare and beautifully sun-tanned backs, now adorned with red, dripping ‘brands’. Revenge was swift.With two of them in pursuit, I had no chance of escape. Just like my grandmother, some 50 years before, I was trapped, caught and branded myself—’bloodily’, with mulberry juice.
Ahh-hh… those delicious mulberries. A short but sweet season, but those jams and desserts; raw or stewed for breakfast; and adapting old, tried and true recipes. I sigh and my mouth waters at the remembered tang. Mulberry Sponge dessert, with those precious little rubies stewed lightly, thickened and topped with a sponge mixture. And Mulberry Crumble… a creative adaptation of a much-loved apple dessert.
“And then there were quandongs.” Kanute’s eyes roll as he rubs his stomach. “Don’t know what I liked best—their taste, or their price.” I have to laugh at his typical Uncle Scrooge-type comment. Kanute has always loved a bargain, but this harvest beat all… A short trip of just a mile or so down a nearby dusty road, groups of quandong trees grew – on the road edge.
“I researched them,” I say, quite proudly.
“Good thinking. Most people haven’t even heard of them.” Kanute pauses and raises his eyebrows. “… don’t think we had either, before that first crop.” Raw wasn’t very nice at all. But cooked? Quandongs have their own individual flavour kind of like the tanginess of mulberries… maybe more like rhubarb?
“And something else… The quandong tree is a… ” I flounder a bit, trying to find the right word. “… like a leech or a… vampire. No, that’s not it.” I shake my head in frustration. It’s on the tip of my tongue. “Hang on… I’ve got it. A parasite! That’s what it is!”
“Truly! The quandong tree’s roots penetrate into a ‘host’ tree’s roots and suck out all the nutrients it needs to grow, then flower, then produce fruit!” I can’t resist a triumphant, “Owzat?”
“Well, I’ll be damned.You know… when you think about that, no wonder those trees in between the quandongs were never as tall as the others that grew alone.” He’s right. Had never thought about it before this moment. Too busy picking the fruit, I guess.
“But wait… there’s more!” I laugh out loud at the pained expression I read on his face Refusing to be sidetracked by his lack of enthusiasm, I continue. “I learned that emus love quandongs too. And they helped the aborigines.” I pause. Now I have his attention. He likes stories about how the Australian aborigines survived in this harsh land.
“Raw or dried, they were an important food source.” I’m thinking how handy that must have been when the hunters came back empty-handed. Out loud, I continue, “But they also made a medicinal tea, and ground up roots for their… wait for it… rheumatism!”
“Rheumatism… ” Kanute repeats. “O-O-O-K-a-y – and what about those emus AND quandongs AND aborigines?”
“Well. They crushed the quandong kernels to make an ointment for boils and skin sores. And the emus? They L-O-V-E quandongs, so there was always a reliable supply of seeds – from the emu droppings! Eee-yeww…” We both screw up our noses and shudder, as I tell of other tribes who crushed the quandong leaves and mixed them with their saliva for another skin ointment.
“Oh… not a good picture.” He shakes his head. “Think this white fellow may just stick with your quandong jam,” and he rolls his eyes theatrically. “IF we ever get to taste it again!”
“Hmm, doubt it.” I unexpectedly feel a little sad. I don’t know of any growing here in the deep south of South Australia. Quandongs are desert dwellers, surviving best in hot and dry climates, in the poorest of soil. “I don’t even have a recipe for jam anymore,” I continue. Didn’t have one then, either—it was a guesstimate based on other jam recipes. Don’t even know which fruit I settled on, but I do know it came from a book published in 1916. Even this book, “The Australian Household Guide” has no recipes for quandongs at all. As it was edited by a Lady Hackett, it’s quite understandable.
The ladies of the bush are seldom the ‘titled’ variety.
Next time – my first own puppy –