Miracle berries: a taste-bud tricking fruit finally comes to Toronto
On a tiny, ivy-wound patio in Parkdale, a group of 20 gastro adventurers and journalists crowd around a table set with big bowls of sliced citrus, salt and vinegar chips, sour gummy bears, Tear Jerkers, and decanters of vinegar and tequila—not the usual canapés and cocktails. With the giddy anticipation of high school kids dropping acid for the first time, we wait for our hosts, Tyler Clark Burke and Jeremy Stewart to bring out a saucer of squishy, frozen berries. We are gathered here to experience miracles.
Miracle fruit, to be precise (less commonly known as Synsepalum dulcificum)—a West African berry that alters the way the palate discerns flavours, supposedly making lemons taste sweeter than lemonade and transforming dirty-shirt tequila into a silky smooth sipper. It’s also rumored to make Guinness taste like a chocolate shake and vinegar taste like apple juice, which all sounds a little too Willy Wonka, if you ask us. We skeptically probe our hosts before putting any of the mystery fruit in our mouths.
Though West Africans have been eating the berries to enhance their meals for centuries, and it’s enjoyed a cult following among New York foodies since the ’70s, Tyler first discovered them a year or so ago after her best friend, Leslie Feist, tried them backstage and raved about their effects. Tyler and Jeremy did their research and hooked up with a Florida grower who has built a booming on-line business selling his berries for around $5—not per pound, but per berry. Once they are harvested, the berries only keep for five days so the grower freeze dries them and ships them to Toronto overnight. Jeremy and Tyler hope to sell them at more reasonable prices, but have yet to finalize the details. Once they’re up and running, they’ll be the first miracle fruit purveyors in Toronto, selling the berries via their Web site.
Feeling sufficiently informed, though no less incredulous, we pop a pink berry—they taste like bland cranberries—and suck the pulp off the pit for about a minute (spitting pits into a teapot with 20 strangers produces an equalizing sense of camaraderie).
Nobody wants to be the first to eat, so we cautiously suck the lime wedge off a gin cocktail and proclaim that our berry is clearly a dud because the lime merely tastes like lime. We are told to wait patiently for the berry to coat the tongue and “bind” to our taste buds, which is apparently the key to its magic. We wait. Then, again, we try the lime. This time it’s eye-poppingly limey. We humbly recant our doubts and immediately start putting whatever we see into our mouths.
Caught up in the exhilarating energy of experimentation, people begin reaching for handfuls of grapefruit and lemon slices as though they were candy, and boisterous tasting notes abound. Everyone agrees that the acidic foods are the sweetest, especially citrus fruits; cherries look like the regular grocery store variety but taste like exquisitely ripe black fruit plucked fresh from the tree; jalapeños are fabulously peppery without the tongue-searing heat; and the bitter edge of Guinness is gone (a chocolate shake it is not, but still, it’s soft and frothy). Cigarettes—aspiring quitters take note—are so rancidly chemically one smoker can’t stand more than a single puff.
As the evening wears on, Tyler casually leans against the door sipping vinegar from a crystal goblet and guests begin plundering the fridge and cupboards for food to challenge the power of the berry. Out come carrots, a cinnamon-sprinkled apple, garlic and an onion. By the time we get to raw ginger (about an hour after first berry), the effects have worn off, leaving more than one person dousing the flames with water. Now tasting nothing but fiery ginger, it’s as though we’ve emerged from a bacchanalian frenzy. Wiping the tequila off our chins, we thank our hosts and head home to suffer the digestive consequences of excessive vinegar consumption and think about the next time we might be able to try a miracle berry.
Jeremy and Tyler will be hosting “Close Encounters: A Taste Tripping Party” next week at The Drake Hotel. Tickets ($25) include two berries along with food. The hotel’s kitchen staff will prepare secret tasting foods specially designed to pique the berry-coated palate (cocktails will be available, but they are not covered in the price). There are only 50 spaces available, so an early reservation, made through the Drake, is recommended.
Close Encounters: A Taste Tripping Party, August 13, 8 p.m., $25. The Drake Hotel, 1150 Queen St. W., 416-531-5042, event Web site.