Thursday, October 4, 2012

Chokecherries- from the dry side of the mountain

These large Chokecherries were 1/2" in diameter!
This year I have had a couple opportunities to travel over the Cascades to explore the bountiful foods of north central Washington. The dry pine forests east of the Cascades are home to a native species of cherry called Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) that is harvested in abundance during late Summer and early Fall by the Okanagan, Sinixt (Colville), and Native Americans throughout the plant's range. In Canada, they are among the most widely used fruits by Indigenous Peoples (See Kuhnlein and Turner).

The purple-black variety near Yellowstone
Chokecherries are most palatable late in the season after a frost when the cherries darken from a bright red to a purple-black, or in some varieties from a bright red to a dark red. While some plants produce chokecherries that are tasty straight off the bush, most are astringent and leave you with a furry sensation on your teeth. Fortunately, a little processing will produce an excellent tasting product.

The dark red variety near Wenatchee
Both cold storage and drying diminish the astringent properties. My experience with cold treating chokecherries is limited to a single attempt with Sam Thayer when we refrigerated a few gallons of chokecherries that we didn’t have time to process. We found that after a couple days, the fruit tasted much better. Our experience is supported ethnographically by the Okanagan-Collville who store entire branches of chokecherries in cool, dry places and pluck the cherries from the branches as they needed them throughout the winter (See Kuhnlein and Turner).

Chokecherries ready to go in the dehydrator
This year, I have dried chokecherries on a number of occasions, and enjoyed the results of all of them. Perhaps the simplest way to preserve Chokecherries is to just dry them the way they are, pit and all. While the product is slow-eating, it is fun for people accustomed to nibbling on sunflower seeds and probably good for those trying to quit smoking and looking for alternative ways to keep their mouth busy. Place the Chokecherries one layer deep on a tray and set them in the sun for several days or leave them in a food dehydrator overnight. While this method produces a tasty product (no astringency at all), it is hard to imagine getting substantive nutrition from the tedious nibbling they require.

Dmitri grinding Chokecherries
Removing the pits from Chokecherries is impractical when processing them individually by hand, but a few fruit mills are capable of handling the large pits and greatly increase your pulp production efficiency. Sam reports that his Victorio Mill will do the job if he removes the tension spring.  A light steaming will soften the fruit and make straining out the pits easier. Those desiring Chokecherry juice, syrup, or jelly need only steam the cherries and strain them through a cheese cloth placed in a colander to obtain a fantastic juice.

Jill and Ray grinding Chokecherries
Traditionally, Native Americans mostly eat Chokecherries by grinding up the whole fruit with a mortar and pestle until the pits are too small to notice. A young boy named Dmitri and his father Jay recently showed me their method of grinding Chokecherries at the Saskatoon Circle. First they ground about 20 pounds of fresh Chokecherries with a hand-crank flour mill equipped with course iron burrs that mashed the fruit and cracked the pits. Then they ran the entire product through the mill a second time to grind everything more completely. Finally, they formed small round cakes with the resulting mash and spread them out in the sun to dry.
Chokecherry pit fragments being sieved out with a fine colander
Since then I have experimented with this method on my own and found that most of the cherry pit fragments are still noticeably large and detract significantly from the quality of the Chokecherry cake. To strain out the pit fragments, I reground my dried Chokecherry cake with a Vitamix to produce Chokecherry flour, and then sieved the flour with a fine mesh colander. My Chokecherry flour can be mixed with water to produce a nice Chokecherry spread, re-dried for a better quality fruit leather, or simply added as flavoring to smoothies, pastries, or other baked products; it can even be added to preserved meats such the traditional pemmican. While there are still some fine shell fragments in the Chokecherry flour, they don’t detract appreciably from the eating experience. In the near future I aim to purchase some fine flour sieves to catch all of the pit fragments.

Chokecherry products showing the size of pits from large to small (left to right)

Chokecherries after the 1st (right) and 2nd (left) grinding
Ground Chokecherries are much richer than Chokecherry pulp. As soon as the pits are cracked the kernels released a scrumptious and intense Maraschino Cherry aroma and flavor, and add significant amounts of fat and protein to a fruit that is otherwise mostly sugar. WARNING: Avoid eating the crushed Chokecherry pits right away as the crushing process converts amygdalin into poisonous hydrogen cyanide (prussic acid), but this toxin boils away quickly at temperatures above 79° F and is probably absent in all but trace amounts when ground Chokecherries have been properly dehydrated. To be safe, I advise grinding and dehydrating Chokecherries in a well ventilated area.

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  1. The fruit leather looks delicious!

  2. Thank you so much. I have been searching for years for information about how to make sure the pits are safe. I assumed that it must evaporate (and you can smell it happening). I thought they nearly had to be safe as I had heard the same recipes from Crow Indians and Mongolians among others. I went as far as consulting a chemist who said you might eat them every day and then happen to have bacteria in your gut that release the cyanide and you're a goner.
    Do you have a citation for this information? Very nice blog.


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  7. Thank you so much for the information about how to process the chokecherries into flour....I love the idea of retaining the pits and using the whole fruit in this way. This fruit is a true treasure and so is this article....:) :)

  8. Do you know of any good spots around Vancouver WA or NW Oregon to harvest chokecherries?

  9. where can i buy some dried whole chokecherries??? I can't find them online anywhere to make them into a tea myself... :( so unfair?? any ideas???

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