Urban Harvesting

Walking the dogs the other day when we stumbled onto one of the greatest neighborhood finds to date.  Several of the wild cherry trees along our street are covered with cherries this year. Last year I only identified one tree as a cherry. It had fruit, but the limbs were so high, my eight foot tent pole couldn’t reach the lowest branch. We had a lot of rain last year and a pretty wet, and for us, a colder winter. The plants around here must like that. We seem to be having a greener spring, with more pollen, more insects and it looks like, more cherries.

The trees (Prunus serotina) put out a good show of flowers in early April. That helped me find two that have limbs that I think I can reach. They are covered with fruit now, bit still a little green. We turned up two other younger trees while walking and one of these has ripe fruit ready for picking.

Picking is  a little awkward – I can only reach the lowest branch. One hand holds the branch while the other picks. I do this while clenching a small plastic grocery bag in my teeth to hold the cherries. Pretty awkward when I take the dogs to help provide cover – their leashes get held in the limb holding hand. Completely worth it though. The fruit is mostly pit, but the flavor of what’s left is great. The fruit doesn’t all ripen at once. Three trips back (last one without the dogs) has given me enough for two small projects.

Cherry Bounce 2010

Last year I did this with store bought fresh cherries. This year the neighborhood fruit will do the trick.

My standard infusion technique now is to just cover the fruit with the liquor.  The picture was taken after the first addition of fruit this past weekend. The second two visits gave enough fruit to get my preferred level of fruit to liquid.

One other side project – making some brandied cherries to use as drink garnishes. There are several recipes for this out there on the net. Here’s a representative one. They all involve cooking the fruit a short time in simple syrup, then combining with brandy and steeping for several weeks, plus or minus some spices. I took a short cut.

I mostly filled a Mason jar with sound cherries, covered that with water, then drained that off to measure the volume of liquid needed (3 oz). Next I combined 2 oz Cognac and 1 oz Cherry Heering. The Cherry Heering is sweetened. Next, I stirred in 2 tbsp of sugar and added 1/8 of a teaspoonful if lemon juice. I skipped adding any water and heating the mix. I wanted more alcohol to work as a preservative. The brandy mixture was then poured back onto the cherries in the jar. That will get set away in the dark for several weeks. The base recipe can be adapted to any liquor you choose,  just add one tablespoonful of sugar for each ounce of unsweetened liquor.

All of this is fairly easy (I didn’t bother to wash or pit the fruit).  I’ll do some more as the other trees ripen.

I noticed that the first cherries I added to the Rye were starting to look very pale (and the rye was getting a red tinge). I thought the Cherry Heering  might help prevent a little loss of color in the jarred cherries. We’ll see. Another thought is to use 1/3 port wine and 2/3 cognac. Updates will follow-

Starting point for the Brandied Cherries


The cap of fruit and pulp seemed to be settling, so I strained the berries today. I  first poured the mash through a screen sieve then transfered the pulp to cheese cloth to squeeze what I could from that. The color is holding up well:

Straining left a little less than half the volume of the combined pulp and juice.  I’ll let this settle again for a week or so then attempt to decant the liquid off any sediment.  Specific gravity is now 1.084.

I did find one other posting from someone who attempted this. Good information here.

I noticed lots of ripe pokeberries on plants around town this past week. My first batch had stopped fermenting and has been resting in the refridgerator for the last few days.  I want this ink thing to work out well and was thinking that I should not have added water to the first batch – it will dilute the final liquid a bit. I also thought I should have been a bit more scientific in my approach on adding sugar to the first batch. I don’t have a method to measure the final alcohol level in the batch. If it’s too low (or the sugar level is too high) the liquid could spoil.  Time to do another batch.

About two-thirds of the destemmed berries

About two-thirds of the destemmed berries

It took about half an hour Saturday morning to fill two shopping bags with pokeberry clusters. About 90% of the berries were ripe on the two plants I visited. Destemming my haul left 7 pounds of berries.  I have a hydrometer from my old wine and beer making days and used that to measure the specific gravity of the mashed berries – 1.060. Using the common assumptions you make when measuring grape must, that would give me a final alcohol of about 8%. That’s not enough. I added cane sugar (sucrose) in 1/4 cup increments  while checking the SG after each addition. Three additions (3/4 cup) brought it up to 1.102 or a potential alcohol of 13%. That should be plenty. For this batch I also used a Champagne yeast which can go to a higher final alcohol level and should ferment out all the sugar. It was bubbling about an hour after the dried yeast was added. I’m letting it sit at room temperature while fermenting to help extract color, another assumption from grape fermentation. Once it’s done I’ll put it in the fridge to “cold stabilize.” That will let the solids drop out, precipitate any tartaric acid(they may not be any) and also let the alcohol work to extract a little more color before I strain out the ink.

Mashed berries

Mashed berries

While all that’s happening I get to start thinking about the fun part of the project – naming the ink and figuring out packaging. This whole thing was inspired by Bad Monkey Juice black walnut ink produced by the students and faculty at the Fine Arts League of the Carolinas. Their name selection has set up a great precedent.

I’ve had my mind on these for a while. Pokeweed is just that – a weed that sprouts up in waste land all through North and South Carolina. It gets a bad wrap becuase it becomes more and more poisonous as the growing season progresses. You can eat the shoots when they first come up but you have to boil the greens and change the water once. The reputation is enough to keep people away, even though reports of poisonings are hard to come by. There’s also a history of people making Pokeberry wine, pokeberry pies and pokeberry ink. The Foxfire books report on one woman who made pokeberry wine so she could take a spoonful a day for arthritis. The Amateur Cocktail Spouse advises that lots of things are reported to be good for rheumatism. The point I took from it was – it doesn’t kill you. It might stove you up, but not fatally.

I was set to try my hand at some pokeberry wine a few years back when a family friend advised against it. He was a retired botany professor. His knowledge of the risks was not first hand though. With the blog geared up (and my life a little more settled) I decided to revisit the poke. A little searching around turned up that the offending chemical is quite concentrated in the roots and stems. There is reportedly also some in the seeds, but no mention of  any stuff in the fruit pulp or juice. My plan then was to make some wine without breaking any seeds-

Pokeberries have been ripening for about three weeks now. There are a handful of bushes in our neighborhood and a few more near my office. I made about 4 or 5 collecting trips as the bunches starting ripening. That gave me around 2 and 1/2 pounds of fruit. Since I didn’t have enought from any one trip, I destemmed and froze berries as I went. They accumulated in a Ziploc bag until I thought I had enough. My only injury was a yellow jacket sting about halfway through my gathering.

Enough berries

Enough berries

Once I had a enough, I poured what I had into one of my infusing jars (a “cracker” jar from Wal Mart, 6 bucks). I had frozen all of the berries, becuase I wanted them to rupture as they thawed (think of a frozen watermelon). That way I wouldn’t have to crush them and risk bruising or breaking a seed. The berries along with a 1/2 cup of sugar dissolved in 1 cup of boiling water were allowed to defrost overnight. The next morning I had a soupy mush. To this I added one package of Montrachet wine yeast. That last was because  I wasn’t sure if the wild yeast that should be present on the berry skins had survived the freezer. By the end of the day it was bubbling along.

So why go through this for something you probably shouldn’t drink? Here’s why: The color of these things is outrageous – a brillant magenta color. I’m trying to make a liquid with a stable color that I can use as ink. Reports are that the first copy of the Declaration of Indepence was written in fermented poke juice. We will find out if that’s possible.

One other thought: A dash or two would give a pretty cool color to a gin drink. As a test I popped a berry in my mouth. I survived. The flavor is extremely vegetal. I think a dash or two would be plenty in any drink.

Fermenting Pokeberries

Fermenting Pokeberries

I think it was the post on black walnuts and chestnuts that I rattled on about trying to pay more attention to the
One Bog Cherry Tree

One Big Cherry Tree

every day world. I’ve tried to follow that advice and now I can say it’s given good results. Now that we’re back in our house we walk the neighborhood on a regular basis with the dogs. This summer has brought several discoveries . The most striking was a huge cherry tree on our street. On one walk in June I noticed pits on the ground at the top of the street. I looked up to see a cherry tree around 80 feet high with fruit along the branches. I went back with an 8 foot tent pole to knock down what I could but I couldn’t reach even the lowest fruit. Oh well, a neat find. Within a week the birds had taken them all.

Today I noticed a clump of shrubby plants with bright red berries growing along the road at the edge of an empty lot. They looked like raspberries, and tasted even better. The foliage wasn’t quite right for what I was used to seeing for raspberries. A little internet searching turned up that these are wineberries, an invasive raspberry species from Japan. More importantly – they are edible. A quick walk back and I was able to pick 2 cups of extremely ripe berries.When I got back home the Amateur Cocktail Kids wanted samples, I needed to act fast. I had just enough vodka to cover them, so into the vodka they went.

Berry infusion are fairly simple – cover the fruit with vodka (or any spirit) by a half inch or so and let it sit for several weeks. You can add sugar to make a liqueur. Go back to last year’s post on blackberries for a more formal recipe. I followed B

lackberry cassis last year, but it was a little too sweet. I’ve decided to skip the sugar from now on. I’ll add what I need to when it comes time to drink it.

Good to go in 6 to 8 weeks

Follow up

The six to eight weeks I thought to infuse the wineberries turned in to 10 months. They seemed pretty happy sitting in the back of the cellar all this time. It spring again (May 2010) and I needed the jar they’re in for another project. I strained them last night – very simple, no sediment to filter out and no gelling from excessive pectin like the fig infusion. I have a nice half bottle of raspberry flavored vodka now.

One year later

Those of you following this blog know that we were out of our house for just over a year. We moved back in toward the end of October. I made a most remarkable discovery at the house we were renting shortly before we moved out – a timber sized Chestnut tree was growing in the back yard. Now the plight of the American Chestnut is a sad one. It went from the dominant tree species in the eastern US to a memory over the course of the first half of the last century. A fungal blight imported from the Far East laid waste to millions of trees. There are programs attempting to breed blight resistant trees, but they are works in progress. Hybrids of Chinese and American species exist, and that appeared to be what we had. Still, the sight of chestnut burrs and nuts on the ground under my feet was astonding. I gathered all the nuts I could and have tried to get them to germinate over the pat several months. Of the four dozen or so I started with, two are starting to put out a shoot. I’m still hopeful about the others, but they are terribly prone to mildew due to the high carbohydrate content of the nut kernel. Two is better then none, and I nurse them daily.

All of that is given as a prelude to say that I have started paying closer attention to my natural surroundings. After finding the chestnut tree, I found three apple trees growing in my part of town and one pear tree that must be over 100 feet tall. I also finally took notice of a large grove of black walnut trees on the main east-west road through our area. There grow like weeds on the roadside and were covered with green nuts last fall. I picked up several grocery bags worth and set about harvesting the meat from inside. This is no small task because the husk stains your hands and the shells are like concrete. I spent half a day shelling to get about 1/3 of a cup of meat. Not a productive way to spend my time. A little searching turned up a company in Missouri that processes black walnuts and sells the nuts commercially. Sure enough, the Ingles down the street had one pound bags for about $12. Not as fresh as home picked, but a quick analysis of my time vs. the cost lead me to pick up a bag.

Once I had the bag, I needed to figure out what to do with it all. I contemplated a walnut cake where the nuts are ground into a powder (like marzapan does with almonds) and then mixed with chocolate and others ingredients. An easier use is to simply stir them into some brownie mix. You get a bourbon-like flavor that is unusual but nice. Hey wait a minute, did I say bourbon? Yep, I decided to infuse. Half the walnuts got lightly toasted in the oven (250 degrees I think) then added back to the rest. These went into a glass jar that was then filled with 100 proof vodka. That was in October. I stuck it into the cellar and kind of forgot about it.

I recently went to work on an allspice-rum extraction. That got me thinking back to the walnuts. The jar was brought out of hibernation, and strained. I strained the nuts through a coffee filter held in a new, simple coffee maker I recently picked up. Worked like a charm. The filter clogged but it didn’t seem to clog as easily as my old method.

Starting with 750 ml of vodka, I ended up with about 500 ml of black walnut extract. It was pretty harsh stuff. The aroma really captured the walnuts but there was a burn to the palate. It needed some sweetener. I consider using a sugar syrup then remembered some Shag Bark Hickory syrup I had picked up last month. It is made like maple syrup but from hickory tree sap. The flavor is similar, but a little sweeter. Progressive additions lead to a final combination of 70 ml hickory syrup to 500 ml Black Walnut vodka. I’ll let it sit and “marry” for a few weeks before trying it again. It’s a bit too strongly flavored to drink straight, but I’m thinking it will work as a flavoring agent in a rye or bourbon cocktail.

Extra notes: It took about two weeks for the staining to wear off of my fingers. For a couple of days there, it looked like I had gangrene. Better to wear gloves next time. Also, as I was typing this up, I saw that Hammonds (the Black Walnut processor) has a black walnut extract available now. One or two drops of that in a drink might very well take the place of this concoction.

Took some of the extra hour from last night’s shift of Daylight Savings to strain out my on-going infusions. One big surprise and a couple of nice treats. Started with the Fig infused vodka. Something completely unexpected happened – it had gelled. The fruit and vodka looked like a jello salad as I got it out of the container. I suppose pectin from the fruit did it.

I ran it through the mesh strainer, then twice through cheese cloth to get back to a liquid. Ended up losing over half of the original volume, 300 ml after starting with 750. The aroma and flavor are very earthy and dominated by the vanilla. Added 30 ml (1 oz) of 2:1 simple syrup to try and make something more palatable. I’ll have to think hard to come up with a use for this one. Skip the vanilla bean next time.

Now for the two pleasant surprises. About the time I set up the fig infusion, I also collect some wild bunch grapes. I see the vines all around our area. They appear to be dioecious (ie, males and females) so you need a fruit bearing female vine for grapes. You also need to find one with fruit you can get to. They grow up trees and seem to get quite high up. I found a couple with fruit I could reach near our neighborhood and one on the main north-south road in town. I checked the vines every few days and tried to get to them  when the fruit was ripe. The bunches ripen unevenly and then are only ripe for a few days before they start to wither. It made it tough to get much fruit. The berries are small and have to be removed from the bunch one grape at a time to seperate ripe ones from the green ones. They are very acidic and have very little sugar. Plus, they have a strong green vegetal aroma. Not unpleasant, just not grape-like. I didn’t hold out much hope for a palatable result, but went ahead and set up an infusion.

The photo shows what I got after two early morning runs to gather what I could from the vine near the busy street. The berries on these were a little larger than the ones near our house. The clusters also seemed to be more evenly ripe than the ones near us. I just got a few odd looks while I set up my step stool on the sidewalk and tried to get all the clusters I could reach.

An aside – when I first saw these a few yeas ago, I really wanted to make wine out of them. One taste of the grape stopped that idea. We have several species of native grapes in this country. The best example of wine made from one variety can be had from Valiant Vineyards. The next best option is to track down a wine made from the Norton (also called the Cynthiana) grape, preferably from Missouri or Virginia.

Back to the topic at hand. I coverd the berries with 80 proof vodka and let them sit for six weeks. The final product is pitch black. It still has the green/vegetal aroma of the original fruit but it seems to have toned down. 

This was strained through wire mesh then cheese cloth. The final product has the strong vegetal aroma, the palate has a nice grape character and a hint of sweetness. It’s a tooth stainer. I had planned to add some simple syrup to help mask any off flavors, but it turns out it didn’t need it.

The final pleasant surprise was the spiced rum. This was a fairly straight foward item to process. Not much sediment. It has a rich brown color, with nutmeg scent on the nose and a little bite of cinnamon on the palate. The vanilla isn’t as noticable as it is in the fig infusion. This one’s a keeper. It should be a great base for Mai Tais, Egg Nogs or other seasonal drinks. We did a side to side tasting with Appleton Estate V/X and prefered the home brew. Cost: $18 for the Appleton’s, around $14 for the home brew (Bacardi used as the base)

Spiced Rum

  • 75 cl bottle of white rum
  • 1 vanilla bean, split
  • 1 nutmeg pod, broken
  • 2 cinnamon sticks

Steep for 1-2 weeks, strain and bottle.

Addendum – Came back to this tonight (Nov 30). I had some extra lime juice from the weekend that I hated to waste-

Spiced Rum Daiquiri

  • 1-1/2 oz spiced rum
  • 1/2 Cointreau
  • 1/2 oz Orgeat
  • 3/4 oz lime juice

Shake and strain. Not bad. You get the vanilla and nutmeg on the nose. The nutmeg gives is a slight bubble-gummy-root-beer taste. That observation lead to a Cinnamom Daiquiri, substituting Goldschläger for the Cointreau, and adding a few dashes of orange bitters. The cinnamon is quite obvious now, but the effect was more harsh. Stick with the recipe above.