Food from trees: marula

Perhaps one of the best known wild fruits of Africa come from the highly valued Marula (Maroela) tree – Sclerocarya birrea – which grows in the bushveld and woodlands from Kwa-Zulu Natal through Swaziland, Botswana, the northern parts of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

The fruits are fairly large sweet-smelling, greenish-yellow berries containing a large, very hard seed. Inside each seed there are three nuts. In late summer the berries ripen and fall to the ground where the strong scent attracts a plethora of wildlife. Reports of intoxicated elephants and baboons are not uncommon as over-ripe fruits ferment, giving off strong, turpentine-like smells.

The Marula tree belongs to the same family (Anacardiaceae) as the mango, pistachio and cashew nuts, and also the pepper tree ( Schinus molle) which is so common in the Karoo where it offers weary travellers some respite from the heat at lay-bys along the Great North Road.

Marulas are deciduous trees; they cannot tolerate frost, seldom grow to over 9 m and have spreading crowns with dense, graceful foliage. The delicate, spiky flowers are either male or female (occasionally a bisexual flower is produced) and are usually carried on separate trees. Only rarely do the male flowers produce a fruit. Insects flock to the flowering trees in summer, their loud humming can be heard some distance away, giving one the feeling of noisy heat.

As a food plant, the Marula is outstanding. The fleshy fruit is tart, thirst -quenching and energy-boosting; it’s very rich in Vitamin C even when fermented. By the way, the juice is also claimed to be an aphrodisiac!

The nuts, incredibly difficult to extract from their shells, have a very high energy value, and contain roughly 30% protein and 60% fat; an excellent source of nutrients. They are used by people in many ways, some examples are included in the recipe section that follows.

And now, if you live in the right part of the world and you’re lucky enough to have one of these trees in your backyard, here are a few recipes for you to try:

Marula Jelly
2 kg ripe Marula berries
Sugar (heated in oven)
• Halve the berries, press the pips out into a mixing bowl and squeeze the berries hard over a mixing bowl to extract juice.
• Cover the pips and juice with water and turn out into a saucepan (not aluminium).
• Boil for 15 minutes.
• Strain through a nylon sieve lined with damp muslin.
• Use 250 ml heated sugar to 250 ml stock.
• Heat at a low temperature and stir until sugar has melted.
• Increase temperature and boil for 20 minutes, or until setting point is reached. You can test for this by doing the ‘wrinkle test’. Put a blob of the hot juice onto the back of an ice cube tray. Push with your finger. If the blob wrinkles, it is ready.
• Spoon hot jelly into sterilised jars with screw tops and seal.
This jelly is best served with a rich venison pie or stew.

Marula juice
5 kg ripe Marulas
• Pierce the berries so that the juice can escape and place in a saucepan, cover with water and simmer for 20 minutes.
• Strain through a muslin cloth. Don’t stir.
• Add 7 cups of sugar for every 10 cups of extract . Add lemon juice to taste.
• Bottle whilst still hot, in sterilised hot bottles.
• Date the bottles and store in a cool, dark place. Serve with ice in summer.

And then there are some interesting traditional African recipes (gleaned from the The Evaluation of the Marula Project in Bushbuckridge in Limpopo Province, prepared by Felicia Chiloane and Jackson Phala)

Put biltong (dried meat) and kernels in a mortar. Stamp until it is well mixed. Remove the mixture and place it in a bowl. Pour a spoon of marula oil over the mixture. It is now ready to be served.
Braai maize meal until it is brownish in colour. Put maize meal into a mortar, add kernels and a bit of salt and sugar. Then stamp all the ingredients until well mixed. Serve.
Last, but not least, you could always brew your own beer!

Medicinal Plants of South Africa – Ben-Erik van Wyk, Bosch van Oudtshoorn, Nigel Gericke. Brize Publications 1997
Field Guide to Trees of Southern Africa – Braam van Wyk and Piet van Wyk. Struik Publishers (Pty) Ltd 1997
Trees of Southern Africa, Volumes 23 – Eve Palmer and Norah Pitman. A A Balkema/Cape Town 1972
People’s Plants. A guide to useful plants of S. Africa – Ben-Erik van Wyk, Nigel Gericke. Briza Publications 2000
Everyone’s Guide to Trees of South Africa – Keith, Paul and Meg Coates-Palgrave. CNA 1985
Food Plants of the World- Ben-Erik van Wyk. Briza Publications 2005
Southern African Trees – a Photographic guide – Piet van Wyk. Struik Publishers 1993
The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight – Thom Hartman, Three Rivers Press, 1998
South African Game Cookbook – Rina Pont, Human & Rousseau (Cape Town, Johannesburg)
Chef Justin Patterson of Chef-on-Call,