Wild Cherries, for those who’ve got the Glands

Alright, so wild cherries. I think my first ever proper foraging experience was undertaken at the late age of about seventeen, when a group of us happened upon some hedgerow cherries in heavy fruit, and went about a totally impromptu raid, using t-shirts and jumpers to carry the bounty back home. Looking back, they were almost certainly not in any way truly wild, running as they did parallel to a meadow towpath. Nevertheless, the experience stays with me as a not-quite-domesticated memory, an experience of something a little more vital and unusual. I estimate that, at seventeen, no baking at all would have been on the cards without a haul of hand-gathered, semi-wild cherries.

The main point is that a lot of people understand a lot of different things by the name ‘wild cherry’. From one point of view, a wild cherry is a cherry tree standing in a semi-wild state, outside the bounds of gardens and specifically cultivated land. A hedgerow, a forgotten garden, even an intended ornamental tree growing in a city setting. Many of these would nonetheless be cultivated varieties, which is of course exciting, meaning the possibility of a forage forming a bridge – at least for me – over the span of ten years may well be in sight. From a foraging viewpoint, however, a wild cherry is something a little more specific.

Wild cherry (Prunus avium)

Personally, I encounter no end of trouble reminding myself not to assume the obvious when identifying the ‘genuine wild cherry’ (Prunus avium), to quote the gentle foraging giant Fergus Drennan. The Latin name for another type of cherry, the bird cherry, is Prunus padus, and the avium of the wild cherry name trips me up without fail, meaning I often confuse the distinguishing features of the two. As with the general intention of all the information of this blog, here is my attempt to distinguish the difference between the two, simply for my own good:

Genuine wild cherry (Prunus avium) has a few things about it that set it at a difference to both cultivated varieties, and also with the bird cherry (Prunus padus). The genuine wild cherry flowers, at least here, in May, and after flowering shows erect green fruits with long fruiting stems ordered radially, and not, as with bird cherry or ‘black cherry’ (Prunus serotina) in panicles, or drooping, pendulous stems. It flowers generally earlier than these two, and has a second trick up its sleeve. The true wild cherry (avium, think avium!) has two glands on either side of the beginning of the leaf petiole or stalk, which are quite visible to the naked eye. These release a nectar that apparently attracts ants, which benefit the tree in that they prey on harmful pests. These two features, long fruiting stems and two glands on the petioles, and the time of year, should tell me that I’ve found the genuine article.

Petiole with two glands, and fruit on a long stem identify Prunus avium

Now it’s just a case of visiting the tree every two or three days to ensure that the birds – with complete disregard for botanical Latin’s existing assignment of their own bloody tree – haven’t yet set about hungrily stripping the cherries from the branches. I’m not that worried about the birds finding nothing at all to eat besides the wild cherry – there are cherry plums (Prunus cerasiferia) and even mirabelles (Prunus domestica subsp. syriaca) in the very same neglected park, so I’m going to hold my ground without entertaining too much hand-wringing for them. Having never found a wild cherry before I’m at a loss to know at what ripeness the birds will start to pick the fruit (in all likelihood much earlier than my own idea of ripeness), so it will most likely be a twitchy kind of showdown when the time draws near.

While that’s pending, there’s of course masses of perennial wall rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) to be harvested:

Perennial wall rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia)

This is hugely abundant at the moment, cropping up seemingly on every piece of disturbed ground available, its scanty yellow flowers making it easy to spot at bike-riding speed. The leaves are more dense and more aromatic than the regular rocket available in the supermarket (or market, even), and as the established plants are as bushy as you could wish for, it doesn’t take a lot of work to get useful quantities without stripping them to the taproot. On the way home from work I tried an experiment; exactly how much perennial wall rocket can be harvested on the canal path,  a ten minute ride, only harvesting plants that fall hopelessly into view. The result was almost exactly 400g of fresh leaves.

The commuter’s salad (note the green walnuts in background)

There’s little to dislike about perennial wall rocket as a foraged green: it has flavour, it’s crisp, it’s super-abundant, and though not as mild, it’s the ever-local hunter-gatherer replacement for heavily-packaged, cling-film wrapped, shipped-in supermarket rucola (which belongs to a totally different genus, being Eruca sativa). All the same, I did make a classic balls-up on my first bit of culinary experimentation with the plant. Bored of oily pesto-like creations, I decided to try to fashion a traditional Frühlingssuppe out of my greens. The almost exclusive ingredient was, of course, perennial wall rocket, mortar-and-pestled with salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic, then cooked hurriedly into a stock of shallots, white wine, the resulting liquid being then doused with cream.

Perennial wall rocket growing on Potsdamer Platz, marking the place where a different wall once stood

The result was far too acidic, far too pregnant with the mustard oils of the leaves, and as there was nothing to bind the ingredients apart from the shallots, it turned out un-blended and wishy-washy in texture, in places watery and in others just glutinous. Not to mention that I over-salted it to attempt to correct these errors, which was predictably but unavoidably futile. Nonetheless, in order not to waste a good lesson on the account of self-deprecation, I realized that the kick of a wild edible plant coming into season shouldn’t blind me to the fact that it’s an ingredient: drinking malt vinegar isn’t much fun, but there are a lot of uses for it in the kitchen. Therefore, I’ll have to start again with the idea for a wild rocket soup (after a round of talks with Pierre, the smallholding’s cook).

Then there are many, many heads of elderflowers (Sambucus nigra) to be gathered for the highly-awaited elderflower champagne season:

Elderflowers

An activity which has paved a winding way of learning and frustration, and is by no means yet coming to an end. Having chosen to let the tools do the teaching and not to rely on wine-making manuals (which seems to be more fitting to the foraged ingredients for the wine itself), the challenge of establishing a healthy, continuously bubbling batch of elderflower champagne is beset with doubt and inaccuracy. The first batch ceased to ferment after a healthy start, the day the temperature dropped from the weekend’s continual warmth. Without experience, my conjecture that temperature took the fight out of my yeast is as good as saying that ghosts from the cold winds stole the yeast’s spirit – pure conjecture, however you put it. Perhaps the abortive fermentation was due to prior mistakes: insufficient sterilization of equipment (though I doubt it)? Deficiencies in my mail order-bought wine yeast? Improper starting and/or feeding of the yeast itself? I have no idea. What I do know is that about six thousand years ago in a cave in Armenia, people were doing this confidently enough without industrially produced yeast, campden tablets and hydrometers. Still, I press my ear to the side of my fermentation bucket – until just yesterday so merrily fizzing away – and now I hear absolutely nothing.

But if May was full of failure and doubt, it also had its share of minor successes. Perhaps June will reward patience in the same manner as the following instance. Since winter I’d been watching the tangles of suckering vines underneath the overhead tracks of the U1 underground, not wanting to leap to a decision on what they could be, though I was pretty sure no nightshade grows similarly in such conditions. On closer inspection, at the right time of year, the bowed stems turned out, after that instinctive suspicion, to really be those of the Duke of Argyll’s tea plant, known severally as the matrimony vine, wolfberry, Goji berry, and boxthorn (Lycium barbarum). All that was necessary for a final identification was the shy but distinctive nightshade flower:

Finally, the flower of the Duke of Argyll’s tea plant

Take your time, get it right. Take your time, get it right. Take…

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