I love wild cherries. I crave them, and make sure to please and delight the landowners of my favorite patch with whatever I can muster. I didn’t always though. The first time I harvested wild cherries, I noticed a row of black cherries (Prunus serotina) growing at one of my favorite disc golf courses during one of my morning forays before work to gather ingredients for my menu.
After a couple hours, I had what I thought must be a great haul of cherries, maybe a gallon. Maybe. I brought them into the kitchen, washed them up, put them in a pot with water just barely up to the top of them, brought them to a simmer, mushed them up a bit, strained the juice that came from it, and made a sauce for the duck breast on the menu.
The cherry sauce was ok, after I cooked it with brandy, duck demi-glace, and instructed my cooks to mount it with plenty of butter, but I couldn’t help but stare at the large amount of stones leftover. Wild cherries kinda suck, I remember thinking. All that work for a little juice! I’ll just buy some nice Bings. Had I known what I do now, I would have done things a lot differently. I would have paid anyone I could find for their wild cherries, and only wild cherries in order to get as many as possible.
Sidenote: I have one friend who, extolling the virtues of a certain cake to me, told me that he had removed the flesh from individual black cherries to make the filling for the cake. I am a fan of many things most day-walkers might call tedious (acorns) but I will not be removing the flesh from wild cherries by hand.
As I wrote my book, well, after I scrapped the first manuscript and started over, I noticed a few things as I was working on the fruit chapter (90% of which got cut, as most of you know). When I turned to wild cherries, immersing myself in as many historical and cultural preparations for them as I could find, I noticed something really interesting about them. I found not one, not two, but three different traditions from around the globe that had found ways to use the specific wild cherries of their region in their entirety: flesh, stone and all (although not necessarily together for some products like noyeaux and mahlab.)
Cherries and Cyanide
This seemed counter intuitive to me. I mean aren’t cherry stones poisonous? And plums kernels, peaches, and apricots too? Like so many things, the answer takes sometime to unpack, but, essentially, they are, and working with them has been nothing short of paradigm shifting. Just don’t eat them raw.
If you’re unfamiliar, here’s the commonly held notions and facts about cherries (and other stone fruits). The kernels inside the shells or pits, contain amygdalin, a compound that (long story short) the human body converts into cyanide after consuming if the shells containing the kernel are ruptured. This seems pretty simple. Don’t eat stone fruit stones, right? Here’s where it gets interesting.
The stones and seeds of many plants in the Rose family (Rosaceae), besides containing amygdalin in various concentrations, also have an intense flavor of almond, a flavor that cultures around the world have enjoyed and harnessed for culinary purposes for ages, using them to flavor everything from breads and pastries, to liquors, sauces and, even meat dishes. They key to unlocking the almond flavor, without worrying about the effects of cyanide poisoning, is cooking and/or other types of processing such as drying. They are never consumed raw. Here’s a list of a few products from around the world that I know of. If you have any to add, I’d love to hear about them.
Culinary products made with cherry and prunus stones
Named for the species of cherry it comes from, (Prunus mahlab), also known as mahlepi, is the kernel, and only the kernel, of the cherry, sans shell. It’s dried and sold both as a powder (not as desirable as the flavor mellows quickly after grinding) and as the whole kernel. It’s typically used to add an almond flavor to breads and sweets such as Grecian Tsoureki. Use of it seems to be widespread across the middle east and Mediterranean, and I’ve seen packages labeled in Farsi, Greek, Egyptian, and Hebrew.
The most well known French infusion of Prunus kernels is a liquor that can function as a sort of extract for cooking and baking.
Bird Cherry Flour
The Russian incarnation is a flour reminiscent of the dried chokecherry patties of the Indigenous peoples of the American Great Plains in that it contains the entire cherry. To make it, wild cherries are dried whole, then ground to a flour and used for cooking, often after sifting.
On the American Great Plains, indigenous peoples invented the ingenious technique of taking whole wild cherries, crushing them, and making them into patties to dry in the sun. after the patties are dried they’re shelf stable, and are reconstituted to make Wojape, the famous fruit sauce.
Other examples of harnessing almond flavor without almonds
The almond flavored liquor is typically infused with apricot kernels. In my book I outline a version (it’s called wild cherry liquor) made with the leftover crumbs from sifting dried cherries that has a flavor of fruit and almond combined. It’s incredibly potent.
Plum kernel oil
Also known as huile de noyeaux, and huile d’amandons de pruneaux, the latter translating directly to “prune almond oil”. Mostly known in chef circles as a boutique finishing oil, plum kernel oil, as you might expect, tastes of almonds. I would expect that other pits of similar fruits could potentially be oil crops, and I know Sam Thayer has pressed oil from wild plum kernels using his expeller and has reported the same results. It’s seems to be mostly marketed as a skin care product.
The meristems of cherry and Rowan trees
A chef friend of mine who cooked in Japan told me that the young, tender growth of cherry trees is pickled in Japan and served, and that they taste of almonds. I cannot confirm or deny that yet, but It’s on my list. If you’ve eaten them, please comment.
As far as Rowan trees, these are in the Rosaceae too. I’ve seen these used in culinary preparations cooked as a small vegetable and raw (infused into liquor) and, I’ve tried it myself. Cooked the flavor of almond isn’t noticeable. As for using them raw for infusions, I cannot recommend them (at least until I know more) as they have not undergone any sort of process of denaturization. If you have an example of how they’ve been used to harness the almond flavor, or have an account to share regarding their consumption, please comment.
Serviceberry Leather and/or Ferments
Not as well known as any of the other products, serviceberries are in the Rosaceae family, and their seeds taste of almond as well. The traditional serviceberry leather described to me by Melissa Price (Sam Thayer’s wife) has a noticeable almond flavor, and recently I did a talk to a Canadian brewing group where one of the members asked me why a serviceberry liquor tasted so strongly of almond.