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Where purple reigns

A visit to an orchard of Persian mulberry trees is a pilgrimage of pure pleasure for one devoted fan of the hard to find fruit.

July 06, 2005|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

In the overgrown, mixed-up jumble of an orchard at Circle C, the elderly Persian mulberry trees stand apart, each one's long, rubbery limbs propped up by a ring of 6-foot-high sticks whittled to allow the limbs to rest in a crook at the top.

These were the first trees planted by Cheng Ja Blain back in the early 1970s, when Circle C was nothing but high desert tumbleweeds and sagebrush, says her husband, Clarence Blain. He has no idea why she planted them.

Maybe it was to please her first husband, who was Persian, Blain says. The Persian community is wild for mulberries.

And so am I, and so is everyone I've ever met who has tasted them. Persian mulberries are an explosive sweet treat, each berry packing more pure flavor than a mouthful of ripe raspberries, blueberries and blackberries combined. I eat them slowly, one at a time, licking every drop of the red juice that runs down my fingers.

Every year about this time, as I wake myself a little earlier on Sunday mornings to be first in line at the Circle C stand at the Hollywood farmers market, I wonder about the trees capable of producing such an exquisite delicacy. With the two-month-long mulberry season just beginning, I decided to drive out to Circle C, near Lancaster, to visit the mulberry trees, kind of a spiritual journey to fruit mecca.

At the front gate, I see a "For Sale" sign.

Cheng Ja Blain, whom everyone called Kim, died a year and a half ago from cancer, and now Clarence Blain operates the 40-acre ranch and its 25 acres of orchards with his new wife, Bualai, a woman nearly three decades his junior who emigrated from Thailand last year after marrying Blain. The two do everything themselves, says 79-year-old Blain, including all of the picking.

There are lilacs to cut in April. Cherries ripen May through June. The peaches, plums and nectarines are ready in July and August, with quinces, apples and pears to harvest through the fall. When the mulberries arrive in July, Blain says, the stone fruit must be left to rot. At $10 for a small plastic container -- roughly half a pound -- mulberries trump all other crops.

Eleven years ago, when she first arrived in Los Angeles, Sherry Yard, Spago's pastry chef, noticed a line forming at the Circle C stand and queued up to see what the fuss was about. After she tasted the mulberries, "I asked for 10 pounds. And Kim wouldn't sell to me," says Yard. The limit has always been one container per customer. "The next week I came with some of the things I make, to explain what I do." That broke the ice, and Persian mulberry season has been a highlight for Yard, as well as her customers at Spago, ever since.

Blain's new wife doesn't speak English, but she has mastered the delicate touch of mulberry harvesting, singling out only the deep purple berries, gently rolling them out from under the leaves and dropping them in the little plastic container she carries around her neck.

Mulberries grow in clusters, but each berry in a cluster ripens at a different time. Every tree is harvested three or four times, with care taken at each pass not to disturb the berries that have yet to ripen.

In addition to the 10 Persian mulberry trees at Circle C, there are a handful of Pakistani mulberry trees, one of the many other types of mulberries. But there is little demand for those longer, less succulent berries. It was an experiment, says Blain, shrugging.

No fan of pruning or spraying or doing much of anything beyond constant watering, Blain scares away the fruit's one persistent pest -- the birds -- with loud bird screeches blasted all day from speakers in the trees. "It works pretty good," he says.

Circle C has been one of the rare commercial suppliers of Persian mulberries. But the long lines at the Blains' stands in both the Hollywood and Santa Monica farmers markets have persuaded other fruit farmers to plant trees.

Alex Weiser has always had mulberries growing near the Weiser Family Farms cherry orchards, not to eat but to provide a distraction for the birds. Now he's planting Persian mulberry trees to harvest. Although his regular farmers market customers know to ask him if he has any mulberries under the counter, his main mulberry business is the restaurants, he says.

The berries "are so perishable," Weiser says. "They just melt after a couple of days."

Finding enough Persian mulberries is a problem, says Kimberly Sklar, the pastry chef at Literati II in West Los Angeles, who discovered Persian mulberries while baking with Nancy Silverton at Campanile. For years, she tracked down everyone she could find with mulberry trees in their backyards, begging them to let her pick them herself. "They're like a drug," says Sklar.

Finally she planted a couple of trees in her own yard. After they're picked, the berries will keep for several days in the refrigerator, spread in a single layer on a towel-lined cookie sheet. They freeze well that way too, Sklar says.

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