Cornelian Cherries

Cornelian cherries are an ancient fruit that is delightfully floral in preserves and other sweet confections.

| December 2005/January 2006

Cornelian cherries, sometimes called simply cornels, are not really cherries. They grow on a tree (Cornus mas) that is a first cousin of the American dogwood. But this fruit has had a loyal culinary following since ancient times based on the luxuriously floral sweetness of the syrups, puddings, drinks and confections that are made from it. Modern varieties allow cooks to bring bigger, even more flavorful cornelian cherries into the kitchen.

The plant is a superhardy native of the Black Sea region, and even thrives in Siberia. Much smaller than the American dogwood its more of a rangy bush than a tree — the cornelian cherry tree produces a cheerful mist of tiny yellow flowers in February and early March in my Zone 6 garden, culminating in a huge crop of smooth, oblong berries in late summer or early autumn.

Wild members of the species yield tiny fruits with a large pit similar to that of an olive, which is why it was considered primarily food for pigs in ancient Greek literature. The Armenians, Greeks, Romans and Persians must have liked them in spite of this because the cherries are mentioned often as edible fruits in their texts. The ancients also knew that, while much too sour to eat out of hand, the fruit had medicinal qualities. What they did not know is that it is high in vitamin C, probably the reason for its healing effects on patients. In the first century, the Greek physician Dioscorides mentioned that the unripe fruit could be pickled like olives, an experiment I have tried with great success. The fruits even look like olives, in spite of their softer texture and different colors.

The appreciation of cornelian cherries was taken over from the Byzantine Empire by Turks, who today make many of the commercially available products that feature the fruit.

In Russia, the cherries are made into wine and added to vodka, and Russian cornelian cherry preserve is served in small dishes and eaten as a luxury sweet with steaming hot black tea.

American cooks owe a lot to the late Jane Grigson, a British food writer who enthusiastically wrote about cornelian cherries and published a number of useful recipes. Her English readers were quite familiar with the plant as a common ornamental shrub in their country valued more for its early spring flowers and colorful fall foliage than for its edible fruit. But Grigson was fond of eating the fruit. By the time we get home, she wrote in The Fruit Book (Penguin Books), the berries are ripening to red, and the race with the birds is on. If I win, I make them into a jelly to go with Christmas turkey, a jelly of the most beautiful pink color. Rarely are there enough to give me more than two small pots.

10/23/2014 7:42:13 AM

Third try; sorry for the earlier errors. Discovered this fruit as Sour Cherry Preserves, $3/jar at Big Lots! Made in Turkey, brand name Fruppa. Very sweet, complex flavor, almost exactly following the description above. Will try to find a fruit bearing tree for our patio in downtown Chicago.

7/9/2014 4:54:21 AM

it is not easy to preserve the cherries over the winter, but I will try to do it! I guess that this will work just fine!

6/10/2014 2:41:32 AM

I tried to prepare it, but I failed! I will try it again next week!

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