Sorry it’s been such a long time since I’ve posted–I was in England for awhile, and it’s taken some time to get back into the groove of work and just living on the North Shore again. But anyway, here I am, and with some exciting news to share!
So, earlier this summer, Nicole and I were walking down the rails-to-trails trail near Tatamagouche, and we were seeing all these gorgeous bushes that looked like chokecherry trees. I wasn’t sure that’s what they were until September when I tried one, and sure enough, it was! I was really excited because chokecherries are one of the wild berries I grew up with in the prairies, and so it just further confirmed that the North Shore is quite possibly my happiest place in the world after Alberta because it meant that I actually knew some of the plants in the area. It felt like home. It also reminded me of making chokcherry syrup, which I love. So, we started to pick.
Chokecherries are ripe when they look like this. If they’re still kind of red, they aren’t ripe. One of the great things about picking chokecherries is that they’re so easy to pick, so it takes no time at all to get a bucket full of them! You also don’t need a whole lot of chokecherries to make syrup or liqueur out of. (We made about 3 and a half bottles of our liqueur with 2.5L of chokecherries and a bottle of brandy.) Also good to note is that chokecherry pits can be poisonous for children, so don’t let them chew on the pits if you’re picking with kids (I wouldn’t recommend eating the raw fruit, anyway, because they’re kind of bitter).
After picking the berries, you want to rinse them well to get rid of any bugs or leaves or anything that might have accumulated in your bucket. Then, dump your berries into a big pot, and just cover over with water. You’ll boil the berries for about 20 minutes or so (until the berries are soft), and then mash ’em with a potato masher to get the juice out. (Try not to break the pits–they’re not good for adults either.) Alternatively, if you have a juicer pot, you should use that. It would be a whole lot less work!
Once you’ve juiced the berries, the next step is to drain the juice (this is for juice, syrup, jellies, and liqueurs–pretty much anything you’re going to use just the juice for). When we made the syrup, we actually had cheesecloth in the house, but when we made the liqueur, we didn’t, so in a pinch, a pair of brand new nylons did the trick! (You could also use a jelly bag).
I’m an impatient person generally, so I squeezed the “bag” while the juice was dripping, which makes for cloudy juice. So if you’re picky and you care about these things (especially if you’re trying to make the world’s prettiest jam–for syrup it doesn’t really matter too much) then just let it drip. Once you have as much juice as you think you’re going to get out of your berries, then you’re ready to sweeten the deal!
To sweeten the juice (and simply make it sterile again), pour your juice back into a clean pot and set it to boil on the stove. As soon as your juice has boiled, you can add your sugar/honey/sweetener. For the syrup, Nicole and I added 1 cup less sugar than we had juice, which was pretty sweet for us. I’d recommend that you taste it before you commit to each new cup of sugar, just in case. We also found that we liked lemon juice in the mix, so just play around and see what you like!
Once the sugar has been added, you want to bring your mixture back to boil. Now, this is where the syrup and liqueur recipes diverge:
Once your mixture is boiling, you want to turn it down to a low boil so that it doesn’t burn, and just let the mixture boil down to a consistency you think you’ll like (It’ll thicken a bit more once it’s cool). Remember to stir the mixture so you don’t burn it. While you’re doing this, you should start to get your sterilized jars/bottles ready for the syrup. We used the oven method of sterilizing our canning jars and we boiled the lids, but do what you want, as long as you’ve sterilized your jars. If they aren’t sterile, they’ll grow mold and other bad bacteria, so don’t mess around with that.
Once your jars and lids are sterile and your syrup is the consistency you want it at, it’s time to pour in the mixture! (Make sure that all the tools you’re using to ladle or pour your syrup with is also sterile.) Fill the jars as full as you can so that there’s little air, and without touching the insides of the canning lids, place the lids on the jars, and screw the caps on tight. We didn’t water bathe our syrup (my parents don’t), but other people have recommended that you do. Wait for the lids to “pop” (you’ll hear a popping sound, and the lid will be somewhat depressed into the jar–it won’t pop back up if you press it down). Once the lids have popped, you’ll know they’re safe to store. If the lids haven’t popped, I’d store your syrup in the fridge, and probably not use it longer than a month after you’ve made it. Once you’ve opened a jar to use, also store this in the fridge until you’ve used it up, and don’t eat anything that looks or smells funky to you (use your common sense).
So, this recipe we got from Mother Earth News. We also had to make a phone call to my dad to ask how he sterilizes his bottles. The recipe we used called for brandy, which sort of seemed to burn our tastebuds off, but it tasted so good with the chokecherry juice, so I’d recommend it (my dad uses vodka and port). My dad recommended that we mix up a small taste batch of the juice and brandy mixture beforehand in case we didn’t like the amount of liquor with the juice, which was a good idea. I found that a 2 cups juice 1 cup brandy that the recipe suggests was a good mix. We sterilized our bottles and caps this time by washing them out with soap and water, and then pouring boiling hot water into them. When the juice and sugar mixture had boiled (we used about 2 cups of sugar to 4 3/4 cups of juice this time), we mixed the brandy in with juice and poured it into the newly sterilized bottles. My dad said you don’t want any air in your bottles, or as little air as you can manage when you’re capping them, so that’s what we went for.
We noticed the next morning that the liqueur had settled a bit–so the liquid levels weren’t as high in the bottles as they were the night before. I don’t know whether this will affect the liqueur or not–we’re hoping to drink it as fast as possible (and give away to friends) just in case that much air isn’t good long term. Once again, if this is kept in the fridge, though, you should be good for about a month.
Some good notes on bottling your liqueur: my dad recommended that if you didn’t have wine bottles to use, or bottles with screw caps, the best way to tell if your bottle would be airtight would be to fill it with water and turn it upside down. If water leaks from the cap, then this isn’t a good bottle to use for your liqueur because air will leak in and spoil the product.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to lately! The Mother Earth News article has lots of other uses for chokecherries (which is good because I think I have about another 4L in my freezer!), including making your own chokecherry flour. That seems like a bit too much work for me, but who knows? Hope you enjoyed this long-winded round of foraging, canning, and bottling. And if you have good recipes to share on how to use chokecherries, feel free to post them!