Monday 9 December 2019

Country Matters: Arbutus, tree of earthly delights

Eanna ni Lamhna revealed the location of a rare arbutus tree. Pic Julien Behal.
Eanna ni Lamhna revealed the location of a rare arbutus tree. Pic Julien Behal.

Joe Kennedy

THE naturalist and author Eanna ni Lamhna, in her book Wild Dublin, revealed the location of a rare arbutus or strawberrry tree in a garden in Ballsbridge.

This was at a site near the old Berkeley Court. There is a photograph of an unusual sight, at the time, of this unique bush-tree, a 'Lusitanian,' that may only occasionally be seen in Munster woodland, more especially in Killarney National Park.

I hope it is still there and not lost in some apartment-block development.

The arbutus, known in France, Italy and the Iberian peninsula, favours as a location mixed Mediterranean scrub or coastal pine stretches in the company of myrtles and oaks and, of course, pines.

The 'strawberry' name is because that is what its fruit resembles, with a spiky skin, though, according to the Roman naturalist Pliny, that was essentially the whole story.

He wrote: "The fruit is held in no esteem, the reason for its name being that a person will only eat one." He had a point. It does not have a delightful taste.

Be that as it may, its value became esteemed as an ingredient for an interesting drink.

In Portugal's southern Algarve province, the berries have been harvested in a centuries-old tradition of alcohol distillation. The arbutus likes the mountain air, and in the hills of Monchique it flourishes on north-facing slopes producing fruit in dense clumps from three metres upwards which is distilled into a clear spirit called medronho, producing a powerful punch with an alcohol strength of 45pc to 65pc.

I have seen some of the process and, of course, have sampled the end product.

One name for it is "spirit of the devil" but it is a legitimate business enterprise and of certain national importance. Several different brands and blends (some with honey) are marketed with an eye to the tourist trade.

I bought a little bottle last week for five euro in a souvenir shop that also sells rosaries and religious statues!

But, apart from normal business, like the poitin trade in some parts of Ireland, it is possible to find a "drop of the pure" with a nudge and a wink. However, unlike their counterparts in Ireland, the home-industry medronho men do not face any threat of prosecution. Their enterprise is on a rather small scale.

There are thousands of hectares of arbutus trees and the berries redden as they ripen, depending on weather and location. Some distilling has begun, but generally the crop is held in vats and becomes a pulp while fermenting.

The principal business usually begins next month, when the liquid is transferred to copper pots and brought to the boil. The pots are sealed with clay, and the pure spirit drops through a spigot and thence to the bottling stage.

The arbutus is a tree of some mystery and inspiration. It may have arrived in Ireland as animal fodder on sea journeys. Virgil, in The Georgics commanded that goats should have a "good store of arbutus boughs".

In Hieronymus Bosch's famous painting,The Garden of Earthly Delights - which may be seen in the Prado in Madrid - the tree is featured in a central panel. A famous symbol of the city shows a bear with its paws on an arbutus, certainly a tree of earthly delights.

Sunday Independent

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