x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Roll up, roll up, for the speedy delights of the berry-go-round

My life-long love affair with berries has a few unexpected gaps.

I can never see the bird I'm supposed to see. Obviously, feathered creatures sometimes cross my line of sight, whether in flight or perched on branches or squawking at beachgoers. But the second someone stabs the air with an extended finger, saying: "Look at that bird!", I am 100 per cent guaranteed to miss it. Bird blindness: one of my many faults.

My issue with blackberries is similar. It's like those phenylthiocarbamide strips that are a popular prop in science classes and which some people can taste and others can't - a matter of genetics.

I've liked all berries since I was a kid and despite the fact that blackberries are the unanimously favoured berries of an overwhelming number of folks, their distinct charms elude me. What does a blackberry have on the garnet tang of raspberries or a punchy wild blueberry? "Just wait," said my hiking partner in 2004. "This summer, when we visit California, we're going to climb to the very top of a very special mountain, where I know of a very secret bramble that grows very amazing blackberries. They'll convert you." We climbed, we picked, we ate. I shrugged.

When I was little, I thought blackberries looked like swollen ants whose parts had multiplied willy-nilly, an obscene and obsidian kind of free cell division. At the time, I thought blackberries were growing behind the sugarcane in the garden of our home in Dubai, but I know now that they were more likely to have been black mulberries - longer and sweeter than blackberries and inky with purple nectar.

Pakistani and Persian mulberry trees are hot items in California's nurseries, known for producing the most astounding of berries. Most cultivated blackberries are a type known as marionberries. Like mutts in the dog kingdom, hybrids are what make the berry go round: gooseberries and blackcurrants combine to make jostaberries, and I've had some crossbred post-blackberry berries, such as olallie­berries, young­berries and the delicious boysenberry, a cross between a raspberry, a blackberry, a dewberry and a loganberry, itself the result of a raspberry cross-­pollinating with a blackberry. But none are necessarily superior to the huckleberry, preferably in warm pie eaten somewhere on the Idaho border overlooking Lake Coeur d'Alene; huckleberries are the state fruit.

And if you can't keep track, no worries. There'll be a new berry to capture our attention in 15 minutes; an exotic little number whose antioxidant profile is lauded to justify its obnoxious inclusion in every new boutique chocolate bar, trail mix and energy drink.

Goji berries, which we used to sneak from the herbal clinic in my acupuncture school days, were good for calming irritability and, before they were trendy, they were dirt cheap. Acai berries from South America can be found frozen and ready for adding to smoothies. Perhaps most bombastically of all, we've had the emergence and decline of the biblical pomegranate, a tough-skinned berry whose 15 minutes may have ended, but whose leathery hide can handle the bruises.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who lives and cooks in New Mexico