Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Field Trip #5 - Mayhaws and Mulberries, Our Best Yet !

On May 23, Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch staff journeyed down to Albany, GA, to see mayhaws and mulberries in their natural environment. The crew visited the farm of Lawrence Funderburke, who lives with his wife Dee on the farm where he was raised. Funderburke, a lifelong farmer and cattleman, spent thirty years as an Engineer for CSX on the southwest Georgia route. He now spends his days growing various fruits, turning bowls and training mules. Dee does the canning and putting up, including jelly-making, both mayhaw and mulberry. As we pull onto the property, we know we're in a special place. We're greeted by an old millstone in perfect condition sitting in the front yard, not too far from a prickly pear plant just beginning to blossom.

The Funderburkes have planted a multitude of fruit-bearing trees on their 30 acre property. “Dee’s got the green thumb,” says Larry. Her garden behind their quaint screened-in porch, features blueberries, peppers and tomatoes. Beautiful daylilies and oleander adorn the front of the expansive property. Pear, fig, and mulberry also grow in abundance, but the dominant crop comes from the sizeable Mayhaw orchards, planted with the assistance of friend and extension agent Burl Turnage.

Mayhaws are a native fruit tree which grow primarily in the wetlands of the southern United States. They are commonly used to make a sweet jelly that Albanians (and folks throughout the Deep South) have been putting on biscuits and toast for centuries. Agent Turnage specialized in mayhaw trees before his retirement. Both the Turnage #57 and Turnage #88 are cultivars named in his honor. He helped Funderburke plant his orchard over the course last few decades, populating it with multiple varieties of mayhaws, many taken from grafts of trees found at one of Georgia’s two experimental mayhaw orchards: one found at the Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College experiment station, and the other in Attapulgus, GA. Only a few miles from the Florida border, Attapulgus is also the site of a huge fuller’s earth mine, in case you wanted to know.

Mayhaws take their name partly from their fruiting time --- you guessed it: May. The “haw” part is derived from their botanical family: the hawthorn. Most people would say that Mayhaws have to grow near a body of water; Funderburke has proven this to be not entirely true. The property had native mayhaws, around which he built a pond. Then he transplanted seedlings onto higher ground. Across the street, he and Burl planted an entire orchard of grafted trees. He says he has been able to get trees to grow just about anywhere. “And they never grow up the same. You can plant three seeds all from the same mayhaw and they will all come up differently,” he informs us.

Funderburke has extended his fruiting season significantly by planting multiple cultivars within the orchard, most of which he can identify by site. No matter how different two mayhaws may look, their taste is always the same --- tart. There’s a reason they're called the cranberry of the south. Despite their small, round, berry-like appearance, the tartness, and the four large seeds inside the fruit make it difficult to pop in your mouth and eat plain.

Recent droughts have unfortunately diminished Funderburke’s mayhaw harvest. “When it don’t rain, I don’t make,” he tells us as we walk through a dried-up riverbed. We briefly stop to look at each type of Funderburke’s trees. Dee may have the green thumb, but Lawrence also has obvious expertise concerning everything he grows on his farm.

The mulberry trees are also producing fruit this time of year. We can reach up and pick them off and snack on them as Funderburke tells us about the mulberry trees. Mulberries can be used in pies and tarts, as well as jelly. Dee tells us that the mulberry jelly is the most fickle jelly she has ever made. “It will gel,” she says, “but it might take a few days. Or it might not; it might take just one day. You never know with mulberries.”

Additional trees of interest on the property are the Osage Orange trees (aka “hedge apples” or “bow dock”), the wood from which was once used by the Creek to fashion bows for hunting, and which Funderburke now uses to turn bowls of a brilliant yellow color, and his Catawba trees, used to attract the Catawba Worm (some say “Catalpa”). Catfish just love Catawba Worms, according to Mr. Funderburke.

Dee Funderburke brings out two bowls containing her mayhaw and mulberry jelly, offering us all a taste of it. The two begin to tease about which is better. “Tell me y’all like the mulberry best,” says Dee. For Lawrence, it’s all about the mayhaw. “The mayhaw is sweet, but not too sweet. It’s got to be a little tart. You’re supposed to be able to feel it in your jaw,” Larry Funderburke tells us as he eats his spoonful. Dee continues that jelly is the only thing she has been able to create out of mayhaws. “They just love the mayhaw down here,” says Dee. She’s from north Georgia originally, see, where they don’t grow mayhaws.

After a final tour around Funderburke’s barn (his “man cave” he calls it), donkeys Sassy and Classy bid us adieu and Larry loads up our cars with bags of mayhaws and mulberries to bring back to Atlanta, with which we’ll make our own jellies, preserves and mixers. Join us soon to try them for yourself.