This year our warm and early summer not only brought us an abundance of Osoberry but unusually luscious ones. Trailing branches over every roadside, every forest path, and every park trail, were hung so fat with plump blue-black clusters that they practically begged to be picked. But the big question – how to preserve the bounty?
I had sampled but never harvested the “Oso” before. I knew there wasn’t a lot of meat on the pit, but I also knew that at the height of ripeness popping one into your mouth, still warm from the sun, well it’s a little piece of heaven. Living up to its species name (meaning “cherry like”) it fills the mouth with dark cerise intensity before settling at the back of the tongue with the sultry velvet of melon. And it’s all permeated by a fresh crisp cucumber flavour. So how could I best highlight the Osoberry’s amazing taste?
Osoberries were beloved by the Salish and other coastal First Nations. Eaten fresh and dried for winter use they were also preserved by sealing in tall cedar boxes, covered with hot oil (usually fish). These were consumed at an annual feast held in the Osoberry’s honour during winter dance season.
Osoberries are the fruit of the Oemleria cerasiformis, which is an extremely prolific native shrub on Vancouver Island. Common in Gary Oak groves it can grow to 20 feet high and it comes in female and male varieties, although the female is reputed to smell the best and look prettier. Birds and bears relish its sweetness (as well as a few other wild creatures) so if you want to harvest please keep this mind and take only a little from each tree.
My heart is particularly fond of the Oemleria because its bright green leaves and white flower pendants are the first harbinger of spring. But sadly because of its early arrival its leaves are also the first to yellow, the first bittersweet reminders of the coming fall. In the spring it’s tiny fruits ripening from salmon to crimson to blue-black, presage the first berries of early summer.
So, I wondered, how to best pay homage to this summer’s bounteous offering of Osoberry? A quick internet search revealed some recipes for Osoberry Jelly but all the de-pitting, cooking and canning required in a hot kitchen was off-putting. I decided this was my chance to try my hand at the latest handcrafted cocktail sensation – the Shrub.
Said to be derived from the word sharbat, from which we get sherbet, the shrub is currently making a comeback (along with homemade cordials, tonics, aperitifs and bitters). This fruity heady syrup – with just a little sparkly bite – was originally created as a way to preserve summer’s over ripening fruit.
Shrubs range from the medicinal to the liqueur and recipes vary according to cultural traditions. But all are easy peasy to make, sharing the same core ingredients: equal parts (by weight) of ripe fruit, sugar and vinegar.
The artistry of crafting a shrub apparently lies in types of vinegar used (red wine, white wine, Champagne, and apple cider) as well in choices of sweeteners (type of sugar, honey or molasses). All will affect the final “bouquet”.
To finish, aromatics are often added according to culinary taste. Herbs and spices might include mint, lemon verbena, basil, cloves, cinnamon, or peppercorns. Commonly utilized florals are geranium, lavender and rose.
Then it’s as simple as mashing it all together, putting a tea towel over the bowl and letting it sit. Then after two weeks -voila – you’ve got yourself a delicious thirst quenching treat to be swirled into sparkling water on hot summer afternoons or excite your evening cocktail at happy hour.
Danielle’s Osoberry Shrub
Note: Please be warned I made this up and I’m no culinary expert. For expert advice and recipes go to this very helpful site.
I chose apple cider vinegar and brown cane sugar because I wanted to complement the Osoberry’s deep tones with mellower warmer flavours. For aromatics I added a few buds of lavender and sprigs of fennel.
The final result was rich and plummy, a full-some flavour followed by a sweet frothy tang on the tongue (like a rich sweet balsamic or the vinegary bubbliness of Kombucha Tea).
- 2 cups Osoberry
- 1/2 cup Strawberries (just for the heck of it because they were ripening on my counter)
- 2 and 1/2 cup organic brown cane sugar (looking for warm deep flavour).
- 2 cups apple cider vinegar
- A few buds of fresh lavender or rose (some floral top notes)
- A few sprigs of fennel frond (just because I’m ever so fond of its anise flavour)
- a pinch of cardamom and black pepper
- Mash berries, sugar and herbs in large ceramic or glass bowl.
- Leave this to ‘sweat’ – meaning put a tea towel over the bowl and set on the kitchen counter for a day.
- Next take the resulting syrup and strain it through a cheesecloth or fine sieve to take out all the skins, pits etc.
- Mix in apple cider vinegar. Then let it sit for a week before draining solids off once again. Let it sit for one final week allowing the flavor of the vinegar to relax further.
- Decant into pretty glass bottles. To serve, begin by mixing one part shrub syrup with six parts sparkling water, leaving a bit of room in the glass to add more syrup or water, according to taste. Garnish with lavender and fennel flowers.
Then raise a glass to the Osoberry and to summer! Salut!
P.S. Shrubs will keep up to six months in fridge
P.P.S. I’ve discovered my favourite way to use a shrub is like a rich dark syrupy balsamic vinegar, for salad dressings, marinades and glazes.