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.
At Lucques, Suzanne Goin serves Persian mulberries unadorned in a chilled white bowl with a pitcher of heavy cream or a ramekin of creme fraiche, believing that the berries are at their best au naturel. “You can’t improve them,” she says.
Rather, mulberries have a way of improving dessert, whether it’s a crisp, ice cream or a fruit tart. You can substitute blackberries in recipes that call for mulberries if you’re hard-pressed to find any, but make the effort to hunt some down first. They’re always worth it. Or if you have just a precious few, use them as a luxurious garnish.
As I drive away from Circle C, I’m worried that this might be the last season for Blain’s Persian mulberries. He says he’s selling the ranch. “It’s time to have a life,” he says, smiling at his new bride.
I’m just glad to have stood next to the old twisted mulberry tree trunk, to have felt its deeply furrowed bark, and to have looked up and around me at the thousands of ripening mulberries dangling just beneath the canopy of leaves, the sunlight winking through in the gentle breeze. The Circle C Persian mulberries have soul. No wonder they are so delicious.
Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Cut in the cold butter with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse meal. In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg yolk and stir in the ice water. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the egg mixture. Gently mix with a fork until the dough just holds together. Shape the dough into a flat round and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate 1 hour before rolling out.
Alternately, using a food processor: Measure the flour, sugar and salt into the work bowl and process 2 to 3 seconds to mix. Scatter the butter over the top of the flour and pulse until the mixture is the texture of coarse crumbs. With the motor running, add the egg yolk and water through the tube and process just until the dough forms a ball.
Roll the chilled dough into a 10-inch circle on a lightly floured surface. Lift onto an 8-inch tart pan. Gently arrange the dough in the pan and pat onto the bottom and sides, trimming off excess dough around the edges.
Prick the bottom of the tart shell with a fork. Line the shell with aluminum foil, shiny side down. Fill with pie weights. Bake at 425 degrees for 12 minutes. Remove the pie weights and foil; bake an additional 7 to 10 minutes, until the shell is lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature.
Filling and assembly
Combine 1 cup sugar and the water in a 10-inch nonstick skillet. Heat to simmering and cook until clear, 2 to 3 minutes.
Remove the syrup from heat and add the Merlot. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add to the wine mixture along with the pod. Bring to a low simmer and cook 15 minutes.
Add the figs to the simmering syrup, cut side down, and gently cook 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Let figs cool in the syrup for about 20 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the figs from the syrup to a wire rack set over paper towels.
Cook the syrup over medium heat until it is reduced to 1 cup, about 30 minutes. Let it cool to room temperature.
While syrup is cooking, make the mascarpone filling. Combine the mascarpone, remaining 2 teaspoons sugar and lime zest. Chill the mixture until ready to assemble the tart.
To assemble, spread the mascarpone filling onto the bottom of the tart shell in an even layer. Arrange the figs on the filling in concentric circles. Sprinkle with mulberries. Brush the figs and mulberries with just enough syrup to glaze them. (Save remaining syrup to spoon over ice cream or pancakes.)
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