Casilda Grigg charts the progress of a fruit that takes sourness out of food
A "miracle" berry, which makes raw lemons taste like lemonade and vinegar like sherry, looks set to take the food world by storm. Served as part of a 23-course extravaganza in Tokyo's Mandarin Oriental hotel, this little-known fruit, native to west Africa, has a sweetening effect on the sourest of foods, leaving you feeling as if your spoon has been dipped in treacle. "The taste lasts for up to two hours," says the Mandarin's avant-garde young chef Jeff Ramsey. "In Japan people are crazy about it. You suck the seed and everything goes sweet."
'Unlike goji berries, or that other equally fashionable fruit, açaí, the miracle berry makes no claim to be a super-food. Nor does it have much of a taste of its own. Instead its appeal lies in its transforming powers. The bright red berry contains a molecule that temporarily rewires the palate's perception of sour flavours, coating the tongue with a sweet aftertaste and tricking you into thinking that the food in question is sugary. Unpalatably sharp but healthy fruits, such as English blackberries, lose all their bitterness. Lemons and limes are suddenly delicious raw.
Yet this is a food that doesn't punish waistlines. "The miracle fruit contains no fat," says Japanese scientist Mitsuharu Shimamura, who has lectured audiences worldwide on the berry's potential. "And the calories are negligible." In the UK, the berry is seen largely as a novelty food, its reputation bolstered by a recent BBC documentary and several TV appearances. "Ooh, it's gorgeous," said Judy Finnigan, biting into a raw lemon after eating freeze-dried miracle berry powder on the Richard & Judy show.
"It works," said French film star Juliette Binoche, holding up a lemon delightedly on The Graham Norton Show. Norton's response is a little more guarded. "They do sort of work," he says. "But I think 'miracle' is stretching it. Turning water into wine is a miracle; this merely enables you to eat things you don't like." Nonetheless the fruit has captured the popular imagination and the recent media storm has sent sales rocketing, spurring an internet rush. Former IT specialist Chas Barr of Miracle Fruit is one of a wave of twentysomething entrepreneurs who have built businesses selling the berries online.
"After the BBC programme, orders went through the roof. It's rather like those Ann Summers or Tupperware parties. People buy the berries in bulk from me, then sell tickets for £5 in their village hall." Overseas the fruit's cult appeal is also rising. In the US, taste tripping evenings in which food lovers devour a single berry before launching themselves on pickles, cheese and cheap tequila, were recently reported in The New York Times. Japan remains a step ahead. In Tokyo and Osaka there are already miracle fruit cafés where sweet food lovers can tuck into "miracle" desserts that are less than 100 calories.
Yet what began as a novelty food craze, fuelled by internet whizzes operating from their one-bedroom flats, may soon be on British high streets at a more friendly price (a single berry currently costs £3). Fragile and highly perishable, the fruit is grown only in far-flung countries such as Ghana, Thailand and Costa Rica. When it arrives in the UK, it has all too often disintegrated. But Barr and fellow evangelist Adam Morris of Miracle Berry are now growing the berry from seed in Dorset. "I'm expecting my first crop in three years' time," says Morris.
Meanwhile the restaurant industry has yet to catch on. Gordon Ramsay was unimpressed when he tasted the fruit on The Graham Norton Show, but it's hard to tell whether his show of disgust (he pretended to throw up over the back of a sofa) was sincere or designed for comic entertainment. Perhaps Heston Blumenthal will rise to the occasion, adding the fruit to his repertoire of taste sensations. Ferran Adrià of Spain's notoriously experimental El Bulli is another likely convert, but with two-year waiting lists for his restaurant few of us will ever get to try it.
But one London establishment is forging ahead. Ayako Watanabe, founder of Saki, a chic Japanese restaurant and food shop in Smithfield, plans to feature miracle fruit on her menus from early next month. She hopes to be the first restaurant in Britain to do so.
Long term it's impossible to overestimate the fruit's potential. With obesity levels at epidemic proportions and our western diet dangerously high in sugar, this small African berry could revolutionise the way we eat, giving us that sugar fix we crave without the calorific penalty, or the side-effects, that often accompany it. Although the berry has yet to be officially sanctioned as a health food or taken up in a major way by the food industry, perhaps it's only a matter of time.
Small berry roughly the size of a 5p coin.
Latin name: Synsepalum dulcificum.
Discovered in west Africa in 1725 by a French explorer.
Grown in Thailand, Ghana, Costa Rica - and now Dorset.
Available as a freeze-dried powder, as capsules and, occasionally, fresh.
Recent history: attempts to commercialise the fruit in the US in the 1970s collapsed amid rumours of obstruction from the sugar industry.
Makes sour foods taste sugar laden and reacts strangely to other foods. Red wine tastes like blackcurrant juice, goat's cheese like mozzarella, Guinness has been likened to "fizzy Nesquik'". Effects last from 30 mins to 2 hours.
Popular with cancer patients (the berry allegedly counteracts a coppery taste in the mouth brought on by chemotherapy) and with diabetics who need to limit their sugar intake.
A potential weapon in the fight against obesity.