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Cornelian Cherries (Cornus mas)


Forging Cornelian Cherry - Cornus mas (109K)As I pondered the question of what to write about for this fall's newsletter I realized it was time for some experimentation. We have covered most common nuts and berries that are out at this time of the year and I feel reluctant to talk about mushrooms. I am no expert on that subject, so, I am afraid and there are just too many risk factors for me to tell you which ones are good and which ones to avoid. Mushrooms often come with 'look-alike' partners, that maybe very poisonous indeed, or at least could make you very sick.

So, when I looked around the neighborhood I noticed this berry, which I knew was edible, but I had never paid much attention to. You may have noticed it too, in a suburban garden near you. The berry I am talking about is called 'Cornelian Cherry' - a member of the dogwood family, which originally came from Eastern Europe, but is now commonly planted as a small ornamental tree in suburban gardens throughout Europe, the UK and North America. In Eastern Europe it has long been utilized for various concoctions, wines and pies, but in the West next to nothing is known about it, except that it is edible. However, the ancients seem to have made good use of it and it is mentioned in several early Greek texts. Apparently it was fed to pigs. Men also ate it - even as a kind of substitute to Olives, as Columella, writes in the 1st century A.D. in 'On Agriculture':

Cornel-berries, which we use instead of olives ...should be picked while they are still hard and not very ripe; they must not, however, be too unripe. They should then be dried for a day m the shade; then vinegar and must boiled down to half or one-third of its onginal volume should be mixed and poured, but it will be necessary to add some salt, so that no worms or other form of animal hfe can be engendered in them, but the better method of preservation is when two parts of must boiled down to half its original volume are mixed with one part of vinegar.

Cornelian CherriesSo, I decided to experiment. I tasted one of the scarlet red berries right off the tree. What it tastes like? Hard to describe, but if you'd ask me, I would not really want to try it again. The berry is tart. That is about the only thing that can be said about it. It does not (to my palate at any rate) possess a distinctive flavour.

Following that I kept procrastinating. After all, what was I to tell you? And so, as you will have noticed, my newsletter, which was supposed to be out at the latest by early September, stayed dormant. Finally my conscience was bugging me. It felt as though your spirits were all calling me, wanting to know what's up and what may be foraged at this time of the year.

I began to read all I could find about this berry (which wasn't much). One significant remark pointed to the fact that only berries that had fallen to the ground were palatable, and another mentioned that they would taste better after the first frost. I did not want to wait that long, but when I revisited that bush in my neighborhood there were plenty of berries that had fallen to the ground. By now they were no longer red but almost black and very soft. I scooped up a small bag full and went home, wondering what I could do with them. My experimentations are still in the early stages, but the first came out remarkably well. I decided to make an apple and cornelian cherry crumble, and it was perfect.

Cornelian Cherry stewThe 'cherries' contain a small seed. It is pointless to try to de-seed them before you start. There is not a lot of fruit flesh surrounding that inner kernel and squeezing it out just creates a big mess. I decided to just cover the berries with a little water and heat them, stirring vigorously and squeezing and mashing them up as they heated in the pan. That did the trick. I ended up with a soupy red stew with a lot of pips and skin, which I eventually strained out. Any berries that had not yielded up their kernel by this time were discarded as well. I figured they could not possibly be ripe. I had strained the liquid through quite a large holed sieve so as to allow a lot of the solids to remain in the liquid. Then I returned the pulpy liquid to the pot and reduced the watery part by heating it for some time until it became quite thick. Next I added an equal amount of sugar and a teaspoon of cinnamon and allowed it to stew some more. Hmmmm! Now it started to taste really good! It's amazing what a little sugar and cinnamon can do.

For the crumble I adapted a simple, straight-forward recipe.

Apple and Cornelian Cherry CrumbleSieve the flour and blend with the sugar. Cut the butter into small chunks and rub into the flour mix until you get a bowl full of crumble dough. I used about half of this to line the tin (butter it, or line with baking paper). Peel and cut the apples into thin slices and blend with the Cornelian Cherry stew. Distribute evenly in the pie pan. I poured the rest of the stew over the apples for extra juice as there wasn't that much left. Then cover with the remaining crumble mix and bake in the pre-heated oven for about 50 minutes or until the crust turns golden brown. It turned out quite delicious, I just regretted not having thought of making some vanilla custard sauce to go with it. Oh well. Next time.

Hm - not much left of it.
It went before you could say 'Concelian Cherry Pie - which I admit, is a bit of a mouthful.

If you search hard enough, especially in old recipe books you may find more recipes, or jellies, jams and even wine and liqueur or sorbet. I was quite happy with my experiment and would use cornelian cherries again for a pie or crumble - even in favour of blackberries, which are often traditionally used in combination with apples. The tartness of the berries really complements the sweetness of the apples in this kind of dessert and incidentally, weight by weight Cornelian Cherries provide about twice the amount of vitamin C as oranges do.

For questions or comments email: kmorgenstern@sacredearth.com

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