When it comes to edible fruits and berries not crowned with the epithet ‘choice’, I often get mixed results: some rightly deserve the dismissal with which they are regarded, and it is plain to see the reason why they have not been cultivated or cherished in culture. Other times, it is totally unclear to me why this or that particular fruit or berry receives so little attention. Often,the worthwhile ways of gathering and dealing with non-cultivated fruits and berries are misunderstood or totally unknown (namely their proper ripening times and special methods of preparation).
This year I wanted to do something with the so-called Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) to test its potential as a foraging ingredient. There are many of these particular trees near to where I live, and I often see stretches of path coloured by the squashed fallen fruit in summer. Coincidentally, I was in Budapest a year ago, where I tried a type of jam called som, and was at a loss to work out what fruit it was. I noted the name and looked it up on getting home, and was pretty surprised to find that som is Hungarian for the Cornelian cherry. This was still fresh in my mind when the trees began to flower around March.
My first time collecting the berries, in midsummer, I could already see why the trees weren’t exactly stripped bare of berries each year; straight from the tree the fruits, which grade from orange to lipstick red, are both astringent and sour. However, around the base of the tree you can find the same fruits, but of a much deeper colour. These are the ripe fruits, which are sweet, fleshy, with a faint spiciness to them. Though you can get away with taking some of the near-ripe ones, an ideal harvest would come more from the ground around the tree than from its branches.
Processing the ‘cherries’ is a relatively labour-intensive business, as the fruit does not easily come away from the stone. As I was producing only small batches at a time, this wasn’t a problem, but with more fruit I would consider a process of freezing and scalding with boiling water to remedy this.
As I had already tried a jam, I thought a different kind of preserve would work better, one suited to the function of foraging: fruit leather.
500g Cornelian cherry flesh
Beet sugar or syrup
Mash the cherries and scoop the mass into a pan using a cup, taking note of how many cups of fruit you have. Add a dash of cinnamon. Add beet sugar or syrup to taste. Add one cup of water for every four cups of fruit (more than usual for most fruit leathers, but less gives a dry, brittle result). Bring the mix to the boil and reduce to a puree. Spread an oven tray with grease-proof paper. Pour puree out and spread well, taking care to get an even layer without ‘pockets’. Place in the lowest setting of the oven for six hours. Remove from oven, cover with a tea-towel and leave to cool.
The finished fruit leather will keep in a freezer bag or an air-tight container for many months (some sources say years), but if you think that’s overestimating your patience, it will stay fresh for weeks in a parcel made from the now-naturally-coloured grease-proof paper it was dried on.
From the winter when I ate the unknown cherry jam, to the sight of the yellow flowers returning to the city, I was constantly stumbling upon references to the Cornelian cherry. All well and good, you might say, were these references in field guides or foraging books, but these came from fiction, folk songs, even the great poet Ovid has them as one of the humble foods of the pre-agricultural age of Man:
The earth was equally free and at rest, untouched by the hoe,
unscathed by the ploughshare, supplying all needs from its natural resources.
Content to enjoy the food that required no painful producing,
men simply gathered arbutus fruit and mountain strawberries,
cornel cherries and blackberries plucked from the prickly bramble…
Which got me thinking, how great it would be to make a fruit leather from the fruits mentioned above. The only real problems would be the first line, the arbutus fruit and mountain strawberries. The first don’t grow in Germany as far as I know, though they do in temperate parts of Ireland and France (Arbutus unedo), which would require a quick excursion or foraging holiday. The mountain strawberries could be replaced with wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca), and the rest would be easy.
Ovid’s Fruit Leather for the Golden Age of Man:
120g Irish or French arbutus berries
120g wild strawberries
120g Cornelian cherries
Cup spring- or rainwater
Honey to taste