Spring in Lishui is a great time to venture out and explore the surrounding countryside. The weather is mostly pleasant with the occasional week-long showers. Last Saturday, the father of one of my 7th graders invited me for a day outing with his family. They surprised me with a trip to a local mulberry farm and an evening bbq by the Ou Jiang River!
Over the past two years, I’ve come to appreciate how fertile the soil is in Southern China. One of the best activities to do with friends here is going to one of the many farms and orchards and picking your own fruits and vegetables. Last year, I had the chance to pick grapes in a nearby mountain vineyard -the big juicy variety where you have to peel a thick outer layer of skin. They became one of my favorite fruits since moving here. Others include mangosteens, waxberries/bayberries, and loquats.
Long rows of short, crowded mulberry trees stretched far beneath covered canopies of mesh wire fencing and plastic tarps. We’d driven a bit further out of the main area of town, near the old abandoned west bus station where I’d first taken a trip out with my 8th graders two years ago. The heat was sweltering, and I regretted not putting on more sunscreen as I pulled my hair up out of my eyes. Armed with my little blue basket, I followed my student and his parents into the dense branches of berries.
I was warned repeatedly to only pick the black ones after being chastised for picking one that still had some red coloring at its stem. I found later that it’s a safety concern not to eat the ones that aren’t fully ripe as it can cause stomach pains and, worst case scenarios, wreak havoc on the nervous system and cause hallucinations.
I found the shape of these mulberries to be pretty interesting. I’d never seen the actual fruit before, only ever having mulberries in fruit jams or jellies. The ones we picked today were oblong and purplish-black in color.
I learned that Mulberries in China come in black, white, and red varieties. They’re also have multiple uses in traditional Chinese medicine, such as relieving anemia, fatigue, constipation, and even supposedly low libido.
The fierce lady farmer that the trees belonged to told us that the leaves of the mulberry trees are used as feed for silk worms and encouraged us to eat some directly off the branches particularly the ones at the top closer to the sun.
I didn’t find the berries to taste as amazing as I expected. Rather, I found them to be a bit bland and sometimes sour. A few did have a subtle sweetness, a bit like eating a raspberry, but overall, I’d say I prefer them in jams. I learned later while looking up mulberries online that “the ripe fruit is sweet but usually somewhat bland, due to the high water content and low level of other flavoring ingredients, but a richer flavor develops if the fruit is dried; it can then be used as a raisin substitute.”
After we were done picking mulberries, my student’s father took us to the local traffic police station where he worked as chief to drop off our baskets and give me a tour of the police station’s private garden. They had an impressive orchard filled with pear trees, peach trees, grape vines and many other fruits. There was also an indoor and outdoor mushroom farm!
The family and I spent a bit of time trying to find a suitable spot by the Ou Jiang River. We passed through a couple small countryside villages, including one that seemed full of just the elderly and young children. My student’s dad really wanted to cross a dam to a little island, but the current was too strong, so we drove for a bit and finally chose a place. In China, you can set up a little campsite virtually anywhere. There was one mishap where he forgot the meat for the bbq and had to drive himself back to town to get more, but the rest of the trip went well.
My student and I helped his mother to wash veggies in the stream. We set up a little table and chairs, taking out a little gas-powered stove, a cutting board, and utensils. We made a small bonfire over which we filled a pot with ingredients for a soup.
After a short walk along the shore to skip stones and gaze at all the insect life (there were some interesting water bugs, giant spiders, and many pools filled with snails of some kind), my student and I returned to chop veggies for a salad. His dad eventually came back with steak. I was impressed, usually Chinese don’t really cook steak, but he made a great medium-rare one with butter and fresh rosemary for me!
We made it back before the rains hit Lishui. All in all, it was a good day! I’m glad I got to know better one of the shyest students in my class and his family.