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Forklore: Least-loved fruits

March 25, 2012 |  8:00 am

Forklore sigSome rather no-account fruits have been eaten for no better reason than that people were used to them. Eleagnus angustifolia, also known as Russian olive, is one.

If you look in a gardening book, you'll find this plant described as a small tree with olive-like fruits. You'd never guess the fruits were edible. In fact, if you tried them, you still might say they're inedible.

However, Russian olive was one of the few fruits available to Mongolian nomads on the steppes of southern Siberia 1,000 years ago, and the Mongols developed a taste for it. When they conquered China, they insisted on having good old Eleagnus fruits imported for the imperial table.

Then there's the sorb, also known as the sorb apple, which today is (probably) eaten more often than Eleagnus. It looks like a tiny, somewhat flattened apple, or perhaps a bloated rose hip.

Sorbs have enjoyed a fitful popularity when people had nothing better. One of the few times anyone has positively praised them, at least in English, was in Robert Browning's slightly unconvincing lines, "a treasure so rosy and wondrous/Of hairy gold orbs." (Sorbs/orbs, you see. Worse lines have been written for the sake of a rhyme.)

Unfortunately, the sorb is sour and astringent, and it has to be picked frostbitten and overripe to be edible at all, which makes it at the very least supermarket-unfriendly. But hey, maybe it would make good . . . sorbet.

-- Charles Perry