Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Jam Session

Two days of stormy weather and now there are pre-Raphaelite mornings when any number of blessed damozels must be leaning out from the golden bars of heaven thinking Ranikhet's the place to be. 

Photograph by Anuradha Roy
 I've been sorting my stack of hill books -- many of which I've written about here. Browsing -- an unavoidable aspect of sorting -- through those old favourites, The Snow Leopard and The Valley of Flowers, I found all kinds of things I had missed before. And I noticed that both Peter Matthiessen and Frank Smythe, during their walks in Nepal, came upon bushes of Kilmora, a wild berry that is all over Ranikhet right now. They call it by its Latin name, Berberis. For some reason this is the first summer I've noticed these bunches of purple berries in bushes. No idea why I was blind to them before, they are so pretty.

Ripening berries of the Berberis aristata/ Kilmora/ Daru Haldi/ Tree Turmeric, growing in Ranikhet. Photo by Anuradha Roy.

"After climbing some 1,500 feet we emerged from the forest on to a shoulder where I found monkshood in seed, then traversed steep hillsides covered here and there in juniper and berberis, B. aristata." 
(The Valley of Flowers)

"At this altitude, near 7000 feet, the trail passes among oaks ... This cloud forest -- who knows? -- may hide a yeti. At the wood edge, alder and ilex, viburnum, barberry, and rhododendron, daisies and everlasting wild strawberry..." (The Snow Leopard)

It was only other day that I noticed in my own wood's edge bushes from which bluish purple berries hung in grapelike bunches. I plucked a few -- an enterprise fraught with scratches and blood because of the lethal thorns. Showed them to the old woman herding cows nearby. This woman, Pande-ji-ki-biwi, is Pande-the-chowkidar's wife and we have known each other many years. When she sights me walking she often says, "Out for a stroll? Go on, keep wandering. Some people's only work in life is strolling about."

She peered at the berries, then told me it was called kilmora. Children eat it, she said, full of mirth at the my suggestion that jam -- and maybe a family's fortune -- might be made from it. "Where's the juice in it? It's all seed, and the seed is bitter". She told me it was the roots of the plant that were really useful -- dried and powdered, the root could cure everything, from diabetes to conjunctivitis to flu. 

A cell phone began to ring. She plucked it from from the waist of her sari and tucked it under her ear to talk, settling on her haunches. After a few minutes she took her knitting from a plastic bag beside her and her needles clicked over a cream and red glove even as she chatted into her phone and kept an eye out for her wayward cows. I had been dismissed.

I carried on walking and around the next bend the bushes had bright yellow bunches of wild raspberries.

Hisalu (Rubus ellipticus/ Yellow Himalayan raspberry ) growing in Ranikhet. Photo by Anuradha Roy.

A few loops further down a paunchy man was poised dangerously in the crook of a kafal tree, trying to pluck a bunch of berries just out of reach. His wife and two children stood below, urging him on.

Kafal (Myrica esculenta/Bay-Berry/Box myrtle)
(This photo is sourced from the net. I couldn't get close enough to the berries either.)

Everyone in town is fighting for a fair share of hisalu and kafal, but nobody seems much interested in the humble kilmora. Searching through Polunin and Stainton's Flowers of the Himalaya, I found that this was the very bush I had seen covered with lemon yellow flowers in April and that "extracts from its wood, bark and roots are used used medicinally" (Pandeji-ki-biwi was right about that then). Nowhere did it mention anyone eating the berries. When I asked a couple of friends about jamming the berries they adopted that kind and inscrutable look people usually adopt when faced with extreme foolishness in someone they don't want to offend.

Another friend, a poet in Dehradun, had never seen it but was much taken by its common English name, which apparently is Indian ophthalmic barberry. Probably because of the first two lines from one of his poems that keep playing in my head at unexpected moments, I have a feeling the Indian opthalmic barberry might figure in his poetry some day:

"Was that a barbet I heard 
In the jujube tree? 
Or walking sticks rattling 
In an empty cupboard? 
Are questions I ask 
All summer long
Then when vacation ends, 
We pack our bags, 
Lock up the place, 
And return to the plains."

(Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, 'Locking Up', The Transfiguring Places)

Anyway -- I came back home the next day with more scratches and many more kilmoras. 

I boiled them up, strained out the seeds and then boiled them some more with sugar. 

My kilmora jam. A translucent, gleaming purple, sweet with the faint touch of bitterness that only good marmalades usually have, and delicious with stacks of hot pancakes or buttery toast.