It has been a berry fruitful season. We have been blessed with a bounty.
With all of the plentiful blueberries and black huckleberries to eat, I have been remiss and perhaps even dissed another tempting taste. Wild black cherries are ready for harvest and it seems that this year is a bumper crop. Eaten off of the tree, these shiny black fruits may seem a tad bitter, but a little sugar (or a lot of booze) will do wonders. New Englanders have long appreciated this fruit in many recipes. Jams, jellies and pies were and still are options for those looking to harvest these locally grown gems. A few other ways to use the fruit have caught my eye, all of which include alcohol.
Wild foods fan and author Euell Gibbons had an enticing idea. He noted that wild cherries are also called rum cherries due to their propensity to be paired with alcohol. An interesting offering from his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus is Cherry Bounce or Brandied Cherries. Simply fill a quart jar three-quarters full of wild black cherries, add one cup of sugar and pour brandy to the top. Seal the jar and let your concoction rest for three months. By the middle of winter (when Islanders need it most) brandied cherries are ready and are just in time for holiday festivities.
Gibbons noted that an old New Englander bestowed this gift upon his minister. He nervously awaited a response, the thank you note, much to his pleasure read, “You can’t imagine how delighted I was to receive your little present. But what I appreciated even more than the gift was the spirit in which it was given.”
Another option, not for the teetotaler, uses whiskey. For this one, fill a bottle of whiskey with ripe cherries in whose skins you have made a single pierce with a needle, seal and after a month, drink up. There are a few other ways to use this plant ‘medicinally.’ The bark made into a tea was thought to relieve the discomfort of measles, and a component of the bark was also used as an ingredient in cough syrup.
Don’t go out and pick your fruits just yet. As with all wild food, you must be sure of a plant’s identity. Black cherry have long slender elliptical toothed leaves, bark with horizontal lenticels (for respiration), and the fruits, actually called drupes due to their stone pit, are found along a stem. One cherry tree provides a large amount of fruit, so not much foraging is required.
Enjoy wild cherries to your heart’s content because soon enough they will be gone. The taste of the first one is good, but according to Robert Browning, “That last cherry soothes a roughness of my palate.” A true fan and someone who will never find himself in the pits.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.