Chokecherry Syrup Recipe
Standing in the middle of the kitchen, I close my eyes and inhale deeply. A not quite sweet, yet ripe and fragrantly layered juicy scent teases my nose, pulling me toward the stove. I lean over a large pot, blissfully sucking in every possible odor nuance of the bubbling purple-red liquid. My daughter is simmering freshly picked chokecherries (Prunus Virginiana) for a softening cook down. Lovely scent memories from my childhood rise up, enveloping me in the magic of these wild shrub berries.
Each year, usually in early September, my mother would gather our berry buckets, stuff our picnic hamper full of sandwiches and grab our jackets on the way out the door. Into the truck, we’d pile for the half hour trip to the foothills of our home mountains, the Big Horns. The Big Horns are a sister range of the Rocky Mountains. One of our favorite chokecherry picking locations was along the creek in the mouth of Shell Canyon, a wild, forest place full of wonder for an inquisitive child. I never tired of our chokecherry excursions – not even when I was a teenager.
On a good choke year, we’d quickly fill our buckets with plump cherries. Within an hour, we’d have enough cherries to provide cooking juice for an entire winter. After picnicking on the creek bank with our yummy sandwiches and whatever other goodies Mom brought along – freshly made potato salad and sometimes scratch baked cake or cookies, we’d turn the truck around and head back home. On the trip back, we’d talk about the sauces, syrups, and jellies we would can up with the chokecherries. Once home, we’d sort and pick the leaves and stems from the chokes and then Mom would put the cherries on to simmer….the house filling with their sublime fragrance.
Some years, my Aunt and Uncle would pick chokes with us and those were the trips I loved the best. My Uncle of Indian heritage was a gentle, loving wise man. He always had time to tell me the ways of his native family, stories that continue to impact the way I walk on the earth and through life.
Uncle’s first lesson was to never pick all of the chokecherries….we must leave at least half of the berries on the bushes for the wild creatures. He told me about his grandparents who also gathered the chokes each Fall, which they made into a winter food. Indian pemmican, a mixture of dried wild berries (serviceberries, buffalo berries, thimbleberries, gooseberries, huckleberries…whatever berries were available) and sometimes wild herbs for added flavor. The dried herbs and dried berries were pounded into a powder, mixed with animal fat/suet and pounded into strips of wild game meats (traditionally buffalo meat). The meat strips were then dried and stored. His family also harvested chokecherry bark and roots, which they dried and ground into powder for teas.
Chokecherries are an odd taste mix of sweet, tart and astringent. This is where the Native American name for the wild fruit comes from….the choke down sensation on the tongue, due to their acerbic bite.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with chokecherries, making luscious syrups that turn a stack of pancakes or waffles into a gourmet treat. Choke jelly, on the other hand, has been a long-lived challenge…I’ve learned to add natural pectin. Chokes, on their own, do not contain enough pectin to form the jell. Chokecherry vinegar is a great wake up sparkle when added to cooking foods. Try it in fried chicken! I’ve made killer choke wine, which turned out to be more of a sipping liqueur – heavenly and potent!!
The best chokecherry “recipe” I’ve made, is passing on to my daughters the family’s wild fruits and berries knowledge. My girls remember going to those same mountains with me when they were little to pick the Fall chokes but had not been able to find chokecherries where they presently live (actually both daughters have chokecherries growing on their land). We searched elsewhere and found chokes – big juicy, red chokecherries – an old 50 ft tall, protected by larger trees, chokecherry shrub. Now my daughters (and granddaughter who picked cherries with us) have the foraging knowledge to continue our family wild food traditions. Lined up on their shelves, row upon row of gleaming glass jars filled with a variety of chokecherry food delights, recapturing their own childhood memories, bringing happiness to their deep winter tables!
ITEMS WE USED TO MAKE THIS RECIPE