When I spot a fellow forager I am consumed with curiosity, so I just had to ask, late last August, when I was walking our dogs and came upon a man collecting something in an old grove of trees on the edge of the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus: “What are you picking?”
“Kornellean cherries,” he said, in a heavy Eastern European accent.
“What kind of cherries?” I responded.
“Kornellean, Kornellean. Day ar vary gut,” he replied and returned to picking with his friend.
This really stumped me for a while. I had a Surinam cherry tree in my garden when I lived in San Diego. Its burgundy-colored and ripple-rigged cherries were divine. Nothing at the grocery store or farmer’s market could compare. But what were these Kornellean cherries? Or was it Cornellean?
Finally, I discovered that they are called Cornelian cherries, the European Cornel, or Cornus mas. They are native to southern Europe and southwest Asia. They are not cherries after all, but the berries of a fruiting dogwood tree. (It makes a yellow flower in early spring.)
This grove was on the southwest corner of campus, at the corner of Wyman Park and San Martin Drive, but there have to be more out there in Baltimore.
In Azerbaijan and Armenia, the fruit is used for distilling vodka, according to Wikipedia. In Turkey and Iran, the Wiki entry says, it is eaten with salt as a snack in summer, and traditionally drunk in a cold drink called kizilcik sherbeti.
Oblong, like ruby red olives, Cornelian cherries even have an olive-sized pit. Everything else about them, however, from their color and astringency to their cranberry and sour cherry flavor, is nothing like their savory lookalike. I have finally found my delicious Surinam cherry surrogate in Baltimore and her name is Cornelian.
We feasted on cold cherry soup and Cornelian cherry jam all last fall. My grandmother loved it so much that she requested that the staff keep the jar I gave her in the refrigerator of the dining room where she took her meals. Since she was nearly blind, they helped her spread it on her toast in the morning. I was pleased to have made enough to replenish her supply until the last weeks of her life in April this year.
I will always associate Cornelian cherry jam with these memories of giving daily bursts of flavorful pleasure to my grandmother at a time when her life experiences were otherwise becoming increasingly limited.
You can still find Cornelian cherries in Baltimore if you look carefully. The main harvest ended last week but there remain some late-blooming trees that were shaded from the sun.
This year I was a couple of weeks late for the harvest, but still collected enough for this season’s jam session. In her honor, I call this recipe “Grandma Fran’s Favorite Cornelian Cherry Jam.”
Grandma Fran’s Favorite Cornelian Cherry Jam
I made up the recipe by combining approaches from two recipes I found on the web.
1) www.motherearthnews.com has a recipe adapted from an 18th-century version and uses white wine instead of water, but recommends leaving the pits for additional flavor. The wine, I must add, is a stroke of genius. It blends beautifully with the cherries for both the jam and soup recipes.
2) almostturkish.blogspot.com has a recipe that suggested adding citric acid to preserve the beautiful red color and prevent crystallizing, but recommended taking out the pits.
Neither recipe required Sure Jell but I added 1 packet per 3 cups of the mixture. I have found that there is not enough natural pectin in the fruit to gel. And I process the pits to get their additional flavor, but also avoid biting into them along with my morning toast!
1 pound ripe Cornelian cherries, rinsed and picked of stems (8 cups)
1 pound sugar (8 cups)
1 cup white wine
1 cup extra cherry sauce from the pits
3 packets Sure Jell
¼ cup Citric acid
1. Wash the berries and boil them with two cups of water in a big pot 15-20 minutes until they soften.
2. Once cooled down, separate the pits from the fruit. I use light plastic gloves for this. I also cooked the pits again in another cup of water and added the juice and pulp that I could take off the pits to the cherry puree.
I don’t like to waste any of this!
3. Bring the cherry puree to a boil in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Mix in the sugar and wine. (Do not forget the wine. It helps cut the sweetness of the jam). The puree-sugar proportion is 1 to 1.
4. When it starts to boil, pink foam will start to form. Skim this off with a spoon or you can add butter at the beginning of step 3 to reduce the foam. Cook for about 7-8 minutes or until thick and difficult to stir down.
5. A minute before you turn it off, mix in ¼ cup citric acid. It preserves their bright ruby red color and prevents them from crystallizing.
6. Pour into hot sterilized jars, cap, and process 5 minutes in a boiling water bath. I followed the “red” directions in the Sure Jell packet.
Yield: Filled 16 half pint jam jars.
Cold Cherry Soup
This is simple. Bring to a boil as much water and white wine as cherries.
Per cup of fruit, dissolve about ½ cup sugar. Let cool.
Serve as is, but be prepared to deal with the pits. In old Europe, they had a special spoon to help you take them out of your mouth in style.
This is also delicious spooned over vanilla ice cream.