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October 21, 2010

Gingko Redux: Barfberry as Delicacy

IMG_3808 File under: Not everything that smells like a overflowing Dumpster in mid-August tastes like an overflowing Dumpster in mid-August.

Earlier this week, I received an email here at 7DHQ from a fellow named Rob who recently moved to the area. He wanted to thank me for a blog post I wrote last year about Gingko trees and their fruit, which I refer to as "barfberries" for their puke-like stink. Apparently, Gingko berries, or more specifically the nut contained inside, are a delicacy in Asia and our good friend Rob is quite the connoisseur. 

Rob writes that when he moves to a new place, he always searches out articles slamming the female Gingkos for their stankness. Those stories typically lead him to the source of the best nuts — in this case, North Winooski Avenue in Burlington. 

Now, I purposely don't walk on North Winooski during the fall so as to avoid the putrid odor. But Rob, bless his heart, not only will walk on the same side of the street as the offending trees, but he also collects the berries to make into a little snack.

OK, but where in God's name did he hear about these? And what compelled him to eat them? Here are some excerpts from our email exchange:


I first came in contact with barfberries at the Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1993. There were four Ginkgo trees that had berries along the walks to the classroom buildings from the dorm.  They stunk up the place every fall. The trees were a gift from Japan and they earned the nickname "Hirohito's Revenge," like the trees were revenge for WWII.
So, I was stationed in Japan after I graduated and I had a good relationship with my landlord who was a 60-year-old Japanese guy who did not speak any English.  
He took me to the greatest Yakkitori shop in Japan one day and all these people were eating these bright green nuts on a stick.  He ordered some and gave them to me.  I tried them and I thought they were incredible but I had never seen them before.  I asked him what they were and he drew a picture of the berry on a napkin and made the universal "smells bad" signal.  After about 30 seconds, the light bulb went off in my head and I realized I was eating Naval Academy barfberries. 
Over the next 4 years I spent a lot of time in that Yakkitori shop and one of my favorite pastimes was bringing other Naval Academy grads there, feeding them Ginkgo nuts and then telling then that they were Naval Academy barfberries.  
Then I came back to N.J. in 2005, located some trees, and "harvested" them each fall and stored a year's supply in the freezer.  
I asked Rob what they taste like (barf?) and how he prepares them (wearing a gas mask?), and here's what he said:


It is really hard to describe the flavor. I asked my co-workers who just ate them for the first time and "earthy," "edamame" came up. It really is its own flavor. 

The big thing is the texture. It is soft and somewhat creamy inside the thin skin. If you had a butter knife, you could probably spread it.

You can cook it by taking the shells off and pan frying them. The nuts are aqua green when raw and change to bright jade green when cooked. Take off the shells. Drop a little oil in the pan to coat them. Cook until bright jade green. Remove the chaff if it hasn't fallen off already. Put some salt on (the oil helps it stick to the nut). Eat. 
If you are thinking of trying them, be careful, because smelly fruit flesh has the same chemical as poison ivy.  I wear latex gloves when I collect and clean them.

 So far I only have one small patch of poison ivy on my forearm.  One year I had it on my hand and around my eye.  It was hard to explain to people how I got poison ivy that year.

That just goes to show that one person's culinary nightmare is another person's sweet ambrosia. But something tells me Rob won't have much competition harvesting the berries yet to fall. 




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