physalis

I was tasting a lovely recioto yesterday and I was trying to think of exactly what thing its flavour made me think of. Hmm, what is it? Ah, it’s one of those orange berries with the dry leaves attached that you often get on pretty tarts and in the centre of expensive fruit trays. You know, uh…

“Like Chinese lantern?” Ruth said. Ruth (who is not a fictional character) was doing the pouring at the Tasting Tower at the Summerhill LCBO store, which is where I was. She turned to the computer and Googled it. Yes, Chinese lantern, so called because the calyx – the conjoint sepals, not actually the leaves – make a papery angular cocoon around the berry, giving it a look like a paper lantern. But the formal name for it is physalis.

That’s an obviously Greek-derived word, with the ph and the y and the is ending. It came to us via Latin, as so many Greek words have. But beyond that, what does it taste like? It may not strongly make you think first of physical if you (as I do) think of the first syllable as pronounced like “fie,” but will if you start it with a “fis” – both are accepted pronunciations, and the stress can be on the first or second syllable. More than for many words, what this word gives you will depend on what you bring to it and make of it. You give it the breath, and then it breathes in your ear.

You’re likely to get some Phyllis from it no matter what you do. I find it has a bit of the wind of Wynton Marsalis. But recioto is not Marsala (rather closer in taste to a late harvest or almost an icewine), and Marsala doesn’t necessarily have taste notes of physalis. The ph has a sense of softness and breathiness without being as floppy as f. You could give the word a taste of a whispery fizzle, or you could come out with a sense of a fine slice on your tongue and a final Alice – or something more salient. If you replaced the ph with f, you would have an anagram of salsify, which is an edible plant entirely unlike this little fruit.

What is this little orange thing, anyway? It tastes like a cross between a tomato and a gooseberry. A kind of physalis related to the Chinese lantern (there are several kinds of physalis, all looking pretty lantern-like) is called a cape gooseberry. It’s not a kind of gooseberry actually, but it is indeed related to tomatoes, being a member of the nightshade family. But of course it’s not quite a night shade – more of a night light, or a lantern.

And it’s that lantern that gives it its Greek name. Well, the Greeks didn’t quite see it as we do. They called it a bladder: ϕυσαλλίς fusallis. But their word for ‘bladder’ came from something less wet. A bladder is an inflatable thing, after all, and the root of the word is ϕῦσα fusa ‘breath, wind, bellows’. That’s a little nicer – and also a bit ironic, since the paper on a lantern keeps the wind from blowing out the flame.

And so we have a word that comes from a word for bladder (which we think of as holding wet things) coming from a word that means ‘wind’ and sounds like a person blowing out a candle, and is a name for a plant that looks like a lantern with the little fruit as the flame, and it is a flavour I discerned in a liquid that I had in a glass and swirled and sniffed – not blew, sniffed – and sipped.

And now you have tasted the word. And, lucky you, since it is not wine and you are not a professional wine taster (as I am not either), you don’t have to spit it out; you can swallow it and enjoy it further.

One response to “physalis

  1. And certain kinds of physalis were used to treat kidney and urinary tract diseases.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s