Over the last couple of weeks, I have confessedly gone a little crazy storing ingredients in alcohol. I get a bit anxious when I begin to see produce dissipating. It comes with the passing of the summer solstice; an inevitable and unavoidable annual occurrence. The woolly elderflowers begin to seed. Coriander and parsley bolt, and the rose hips take their annual turn. And although this loss of flora brings a berry that too can be preserved, for those eager enough to bottle up the summer sun, there exists a solution. It’s called alcohol.
It’s no coincidence that the practice of storing fruit in alcohol exists in almost every culture. It’s an extremely efficient way of preserving large gluts of fresh produce. While I have shared many articles on preservation methods – canning, pickling and fermentation – preserving fruit in alcohol is without a doubt the easiest and most satisfying. You are not only left with a deliciously flavoured alcohol for your labour, but a boozy fruit too.
In Ireland, we have traditions of preserving sloe berries in gin. However, I feel that sloe berries are under-appreciated or perhaps misunderstood. In their raw state, sloes taste bitter, tannic and acidic, but with a couple of months of maceration submerged in a solvent like alcohol, they undergo a remarkable and transformative effect. The alcohol extracts the aromatic compounds in the fruit and skins, producing a godly flavour with wonderful maturing qualities. I often hear journalists state that foraging and preservation is a trend, almost as if it’s not something that will stick around… I must admit, the ignorance of the remark amuses me. There are countless reasons why cooking with wild food is so evocative. Preservation and fermentation are processes which offer fantastic and often surprising outcomes of flavour.
This year, I had the good fortune of moving into a house with a fruiting cherry tree in the front garden. That said, I had little hope of actually harvesting cherries this year, based on the past year’s failures…I had located wild cherry trees throughout the city, with ambitions of gathering a large glut, preserving for the winter and later adorning desserts and puds in more frugal seasons, only to be left empty handed at the time of harvest. I kept my eye on their maturation, almost religiously cycling by their whereabouts in an effort to perfectly select the fruit at its best. While most trees are sporadically dotted throughout the neighbourhoods, there is a particular public garden not far from me, sheltered by wild cherry trees. Last June, on one of my routine investigations, I had identified that the cherries were almost ready to be picked – perhaps a week out from perfection. At this time, the park was full of people, presumably locals. What amazed me was that no one was paying any attention to the wild cherries dangling above their heads. How unappreciative of them, I thought. Alas, I decided that I would return in a week, when the berries were at their peak.
Armed with buckets and bags and a small step ladder, I ditched the bike and took my car. After all, I had an afternoon’s work ahead of me. As I turned the corner to the park’s entrance, I was stunned. The trees nearest to me hadn’t a berry to speak of. I did a loop of the garden and to my disbelief, each tree had been completely stripped of its fruit. I immediately began to think of the locals who paid little attention to my excitement the previous week. Perhaps this was part of their plan: a communal harvest of which I had no part in.
At that moment I felt I was being watched through the peaking windows of the surrounding houses, no doubt their kitchen tables decorated with a freshly baked cherry pie. I drove home that afternoon disheartened. Eager to soften my disappointment, I chose to pass the handful of trees dotted throughout the neighbourhood, in the hope they may have escaped the manic harvest of these self-serving cherry fanatics. As I approached one of said trees, it dawned on me what the true root cause was. The tree was undergoing an onslaught and the neighbours were not at fault. It appeared my foraging capabilities were no match for the instinctive scavenging prowess of the magpies, who were ravaging the tree of its precious fruit.
As spring gave way to summer, this year, I watched my berries grow through the kitchen window: miniature green seeds developing into coupled berries, later attaining a red blush. As the weeks continued and June approached, the berries turned a light red and my negativity soon turned to hope. Perched or almost hidden against a south facing wall, perhaps the birds didn’t know about this tree. Maybe this was the year I would enjoy the fruits of my labour. Resigned to the fact that if I waited any longer, the birds would indeed outsmart me, I decided to pick the ripest of cherries and make them into my version of Ginjinha, a cherry liqueur traditionally drunk in Portugal.
Dotted throughout Lisbon are tiny taverns carved into ancient buildings. Typically, you see locals sipping their miniature glasses, midday, on barrels spilling out onto the street. In the more touristy locations, these glasses are made of chocolate (admittedly delicious). An old man pours you a shot glass worth of the amber liquid, to which two tiny cherries are added from the bottle. The brandy has been infused with these cherries, together with some port and spices. The beverage is sipped and when complete, you are left with a macerated cherry as a reward. It’s a rather pleasant experience. Beware though, tiny macerated cherries not only carry a weighty degree of alcohol, but a small stone too – all the more reason to sip the drink.
I recently returned from a trip there and upon tasting the beverage, I was instantly reminded of my mother’s local brew called Guignolet, a wild cherry liqueur stemming from the South of France but believed to have Portuguese origins. My mother picked the recipe up from a French lady, Mary Louise Griffoul, who lived opposite us, located in the wine making village named St André de Roquelongue in the heart of the Corbiéres. While for the best part of nine months, the sleepy village sees little action, come harvest time, the street becomes a hive of activity. Young men and women, predominantly Portuguese, not only bringing their able bodies but traditions too. Unlike Ginjinha however, Guignolet is made by macerating cherry leaves, rosé wine, sugar and ample amounts of 90% proof alcohol. The concoction is transferred to bottles and left to age for a year in a cool, dark place to produce a distinctly deep cherry brandy. The perfect apéro!
If you have better luck against the birds, try my recipe below. I’ve used both the fruit and the leaves, and have added vanilla, This recipe I am sure can be made with conventional cherries. Perhaps though, reduce the sugar a tad.
WILD CHERRY LIQUEUR
400 g ripe wild cherries
500 ml vodka
250 ml port or red wine
200 g vanilla sugar (made by adding 5 used vanilla pods in caster sugar and leaving for 3 weeks. You can also just add a fresh vanilla pod to the brew).
8 cherry leaves (optional)
- Remove the stems from the cherries. Wash the fruit and allow it to drain.
- Place the cherries into clean glass bottles or mason jars.
- Top with sugar, vodka and port.
- Close the vessels and place them in a cold, dark spot until Christmas. The liqueur should last indefinitely.
Other fruit to use with vodka:
- Plums and mirabelles
- Green coriander seed
Cúán Greene is a chef and author of the Ómós Digest Newsletter. You can subscribe for weekly posts at omos.substack.com