They sound exotic and are hardly ever found in our native cuisine, but for centuries barberries, known back then as Sauerdorn in German, were widely used in Switzerland. Nowadays, however, the only place they feature regularly is in rice dishes from the Near and Middle East, especially in food from Iran, and sometimes in dishes from Turkey. Yet this red-berried fruit is actually native to Switzerland, too, and for centuries was used not just in its own right to make jams, but also to give a red colour to quince jam or apple purée. In old Swiss cookbooks, berberis vulgaris, the Latin name for barberry, makes regular appearances until around 1870, after which it almost completely disappeared from kitchens and was thus largely forgotten.
It wasn’t that people didn’t want to cook with it any more: it disappeared because people began to to destroy it in the natural environment. This was because in the 19th century it was identified as a host to the black stem rust fungus, which affects grains. The fungus was greatly feared by farmers and was cited as one of the reasons for devastating grain crop failures. So barberry was eradicated, especially from all grain-producing areas in the Central Plateau – but in France and the USA there was also widespread action to remove this once-beloved hedgerow crop.
Consequently, it can be found growing wild almost only in Graubünden and other remote side valleys of neighbouring countries, where the practice of cultivating grain even above the tree line was almost completely abandoned over a century ago. Also known in English as sow berry, mountain grape and jaundice berry, you can tell the plant was once widely known in Graubünden as it had even more different common names there: Bettlerkraut, Erbselnwurz, Gälhügel, Geissblatt, Rifspitzbeere, Spitezbeere and Spinatsch, to name a few. In the Valais and Eastern Switzerland, too, where it still grows wild in very modest quantities, it is known by some fascinating German names such as Frauenasuampfara, Reifbeere, Saurauch and Schwidere.
If you know the kind of habitat in which barberry thrives, then you can still find it growing wild in the regions above, or you can also find the dried red oval berries on sale, primarily in Turkish and Middle Eastern stores and delicatessens. It’s definitely worth trying them out, especially if you bake a lot or use raisins, sultanas or currants in recipes, as barberries can be used as substitutes for any of these. Personally, I’ve used them in pear bread, Guggelhöpf ring cakes and other sweet yeast dough pastries. Their fruity acidity also makes them the perfect accompaniment to meat dishes like lamb and goat, or try them any time with simple dishes, maybe mixed in with croutons or sprinkled over a leaf salad.
The delicate leaves of the barberry plant can also be used in small quantities, the only difference in taste between them and the berries being the lack of fructose. I recently found something wonderful in Graubünden organic farmer Sabina Heinrich’s farm shop in Filisur in the Albula valley: little Graubünden grissini with barberry leaves baked into them. They went perfectly with the bird cherry blossom syrup that she also makes herself from wild-growing cherry blossom. But I’ll tell you more about that another time.