Berries work their magic

June 25, 2008|By ROB KASPER

The raw lime tasted like candied fruit. The slice of naked grapefruit was, I would have sworn, drenched in brown sugar. The dill pickle tasted sweet initially, but it packed a surprisingly hot finish. The Guinness tasted like chocolate malt.

That is what happens after you chew the magic berry. Sour temporarily tastes sweet. The small red berry called miracle fruit, or Synsepalum dulcificum, is native to West Africa. It is now grown in Florida, sold on the Web and is the rage among folks who like to alter their taste buds.

On a recent Friday night, I attended a gathering of berry-chewers in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood. It was organized by Roopa Kalyanaraman, who writes a food blog called Raspberry Eggplant, and by Meghan Murphy, who writes a blog called Parsley Sage, Rosemary & Thyme. The 11-member gathering, comprised of a handful of other Baltimore food bloggers and their friends, was designed to attempt to trick our sense of taste.

We each snagged a sliver of the miracle fruit. We chewed the berry, which tasted like the skin of a not-quite-ripe nectarine. Then we chowed down, comparing impressions of what we were eating. We did this three times. Each time, the effect of the berry lasted for about 30 minutes.

We swallowed a lot of sour stuff, and mostly we liked it. Rarely, for example, are the hors d'oeuvres at a party slices of citrus fruit. But after chewing the berry, we attacked slices of lime, lemon and grapefruit as if they were morsels of coconut shrimp. As advertised, the berry made them taste like candy.

A slice of out-of-season Granny Smith apple seemed to me like a sweet Honeycrisp just pulled from a tree. Raw rhubarb, another item you don't munch on every day, was so winning I had a second helping.

Our berry-bearing hostess, Kalyanaraman, who works at the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute in the Bloomberg School of Public Health and who has a background in molecular biology, explained the science of fooling our senses.

She said the berries contain a protein called miraculin. One end of the protein binds to the sweet receptors in taste buds and the other end binds to acids. When you eat something sour or tart, she said, the acids in it bind to the free end of the miraculin, which triggers your sweet receptors and, therefore, makes the food taste sweet.

I tried to understand this technical explanation, but wished I had paid more attention in high school chemistry class. I also wished I had the berry back then. It would have done wonders for the school-cafeteria fare.

Kalyanaraman also said that the fruit was legal and safe, but hard to get and required special handling. When she telephoned a miracle fruit grower cited in a recent article in The New York Times, the grower told her he had been overwhelmed with orders and had a two-month backup.

She found another grower in Florida whose crop had just been hit by insects, but who did have a few berries left. She arranged for the fruit to be shipped overnight in a cooler to Baltimore. The berries start to lose their potency as soon as they are picked, but cooling them slows down the deterioration. The berries worked out to about $3 apiece, plus shipping and handling.

Kalyanaraman had put out quite a spread of foods for us berry chewers to sample. In addition to the sliced fruit, there was an assortment of cheese. For me the goat cheese, after-berry, was creamier. The flavor of the vinegars I sampled did not seem to change. But I confess to a lack of experience. On most Friday nights, I don't drink a lot of vinegar.

A piece of raw ginger was hotter than a pepper sprout. The aforementioned Guinness was rich and chocolate-laden. But I missed the bitterness in the stout, the source of inspiration for so many Irish poets.

Not everyone reacts the same way to chewing the miracle fruit. Later, I checked to see how some of the bloggers had reacted to the berry.

Meg Fielding, who also liked the raw rhubarb, said in her Pigtown Pigout blog that the berry gave everything "a warm round flavor."

John Donahue, author of the Baltimore Snacker blog, was bummed that the berry had an uneven effect on him. While a can of unsweetened artichoke soda did taste like sweet iced tea, the limes and lemons, he said, just tasted like limes and lemons.

"The cheese tasted like cheesecake" for Elizabeth Griffiths, who writes the blog Strawberries in Paris, and Dara Bunjon said in her Dining Dish blog that adding lemon juice to bitter unsweetened iced tea made the drink taste sweet.

Kalyanaraman wrote on her blog that her distaste for blue cheese had not changed. "I hated blue cheese, and I hated it under the influence, too," she wrote.

Some miracles, it seems, are beyond even the power of this fruit.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

See Rob Kasper each Wednesday on ABC2/WMAR-TV's News at Noon.

How to get them

Miracle fruit berries can be ordered from grower Adam Shafran of Orlando, Fla., by e-mail at adamdanashafran@gmail.com; or by phone at 407-739-9496; or from miraclefruitman.com

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