All Choked Up
In the afterglow of summer heat, the fruits have garnered goodness and we’re inundated with wild berries that can be turned into boozy infusions, concocted into syrups and used to create zingy tasting shrubs. From arctic blueberries to elderberries; serviceberries to rowanberries; cloudberries to wild aronia we are spoiled for choice.
What better way, to toast to the end of the summer season, than a cocktail stirred or shaken with indigenous wild ingredients.
This week I'm shining the spotlight on the often overlooked, slightly scary, but a giant in the world of foraging – the chokecherry.
Chokecherry’s (Prunus virginiana) are also called wild and black cherries and belong to the rose (Rosaceae) family. The chokecherry is a stone fruit and therefore not technically a berry. They get their name from their strong sour taste, particularly when eaten raw and directly from the tree. Like cherries and apricots, the pits contain and should not be consumed. Have you stopped reading yet? Keep reading… The chokecherry’s astringent taste mellows out when it is dried or cooked and the hydrocyanic acid is destroyed with heat when cooked.
They grow wild throughout most of North America, with a range from Newfoundland to Saskatchewan, and as far south as North Carolina, and are actually the official state fruit of North Dakota. In May, they become covered with long white blossoms whose unique aroma fills the air with a sweet fragrance reminiscent of almonds. Round green cherries eventually replace the flowers — when they reach pea-size. The fruits turn a deep purplish red or black that signals every bird to come and feast. Harvesting the berries, is often a race with the birds.
The berries will turn almost black when they’re ripe in late summer to early fall. Picking one for taste is the best way to test for ripeness. If you get a first taste of astringent or bitter, you will need to hold back and wait for a few more weeks. When they are blackish maroon and sweet, you are in the harvest zone.
The ripe berries are 8-10mm in diameter and contain a single large stone. If you have several seeds in your pickings, you may have found some chokeberries, also part of the Roseceae family, but not chokecherry.
Eaten fresh or cooked, chokecherries are abundant and easy to gather. A friend’s cottage in Beach Meadows has an entire row of trees growing in her backyard, but you will find them thriving in open sites across the province and because birds distribute the seeds, it takes root on the borders of woods, in clearings, and along ditch banks.
A traditional First Nation’s method of preparing the berries was to crush them between two stones and then warm them up in a pan with lard and sugar. Crushed and dried, the berries were used in cakes or cooked in stews. The sticks were also used to roast game, because the wood did not burn easily and added spice to the meat. Twigs were also used to make pins and cross-sticks for tepees.
These days’ chokecherries are mainly used to make jelly, which is delicious when eaten with game meats, duck or ripe aged cheese. Barmen are also discovering their unique flavour profile and creating shrubs and syrups from the berries. Chris Milligan, a veteran mixicologist at the Hotel St Francis in Santa Fe, makes a chokecherry syrup that he mixes with añejo (aged) tequila, sweet vermouth, sage, and Mexican mole bitters.
Turning the chokecherry’s into fuchsia coloured syrup is one of the easiest ways to make use of them. The syrup is delicious poured over pancakes, drizzled over baked Brie or used as a glaze for roast chicken.
They are perfect for creating shrubs that will add a twist to any cocktail. Take the cherry syrup, combine it with a little vinegar, let it stand for a while, bottle it, and you’ve got yourself a shrub. Vinegar is a natural preservative that will allow the use of the shrub year round when the fruit is not in season.
1 cup chokecherry
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Remove stems and rinse cherries with cold water. Add cherries to a pot. Add enough water to cover the cherries. Bring to a boil, and then cook over medium heat for 15 minutes or until soft. Gently mash the soft cherries and pour through a fine-mesh strainer or double-layered cheesecloth to remove skins and pits.