If cultivated members of the grass family, Poaceae have historically been responsible for putting dinner on the table for most of mankind, then it’s usually been up to ripened ovaries of the rose family, Rosaceae, to bring dessert to the world potluck. Grasses and cereal grains—rice, millet, wheat, oats, barley, bamboo and rye, to name a few of the biggies—either directly or indirectly, in the form of meat, milk and eggs, account for some 60-70 percent of the world’s food energy. Most of the succulent fruits we eat, on the other hand, and many of the fruit-bearing decorative species we put in our yards and gardens, belong to Rosaceae, a family consisting of some 110 genera and 3,000-plus species distributed widely over the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. Eaten an apple lately? A pear, plum, peach or a handful of Flathead cherries? Thank Rosaceae. Sent a single red rose to that special someone? As the family name would suggest, you’ve got Rosaceae to thank for that, too.
When we consider quintessentially Montana plants, many species in Rosaceae spring immediately to mind: delectable huckleberries bleeding juice in Ziploc bags at the farmer’s market, bready serviceberries ripening to a plum purple in the eighth month of the year that some Native American tribes called the Saskatoons Ripen Moon. Alpine strawberries—you always feel especially blessed to find them after being toyed with for months by the creeping runners that lace hiking trails—these are Rosaceae, too.
For the happenstance picker—like the hiker who just happens to be in the right place at the right time—strawberries and huckleberries are right at the top of the list of happy things to find in the woods and meadows of western Montana. They are instantly, utterly edible and, in the case of the latter, easy enough to pick in quantity to get one’s fill and still have some left to share with friends and neighbors—maybe even to bake a small pie. For the slightly more adventurous berry enthusiast, gooseberries, golden currants and serviceberries are not just edible but delicious in their own distinctive way.
Trailing these jocks and bloc-vote beauty queens of the rose family in the edible berry sweepstakes is the aptly-named chokecherry, an acerbic and puckersome drupe closely related to the plum and the domestic cherry that can only rarely be eaten with any enjoyment straight off the bush. Try one next time you’re walking along the riverfront trail. In late August and early September they ripen like gangbusters in grape-like clusters hanging from shrub- to tree-sized bushes anywhere from three to 30 feet tall. The ripe fruits range in color from burgundy red to purplish-black and in size from pebble small to almost as big as marbles, and no matter how delectable they look basking in the late afternoon sunshine, chances are you can’t chew one without making a face like you’ve been licking alum off a dirty chalkboard. That’s what the astringent taste of a ripe chokecherry actually feels like in your mouth.
But let’s face it: Montana is not always a land that suffers the fussy or lazy wild fruitist gladly, and some of the most delicious wild confections need a little time and patience to prepare. Chokecherries are like the hard-hearted women who need to be coaxed into it with understandin’ and a little lovin’ before they give freely of their affection. And when they finally warm up to you, you’ll be addicted for sure.
Chokecherries are ready to pick when the clusters of fruit can be pulled off their drooping spikes with minimal resistance. You huckleberry snobs can stoop and duck all you like; there’s nothing like reaching up into a chokecherry bush and feeling a dozen fat, juicy chokecherries come skroopling off the spike between your fingers.
Once you’ve picked a couple of pounds, you’ve got enough to try making syrup. Put eight cups of fruit into a decent-sized saucepan and bruise up with a potato masher. Add a cup or so of water, cover and bring to a gentle boil for half an hour. Strain off the juice, add an equal measure of sugar to it and boil gently for another half-hour. An acquaintance of mine likes to crush a few of the pits to release the almondy, maraschino flavor, but this is some advanced technique—more about that in just a minute.
If you come up with five pounds of chokecherries in an hour’s solid picking—which you should easily be able to do—you can also try your hand at chokecherry wine, which is as prairie a thing to make as vinegar pie and sumac lemonade. Many recipes are available, but here are a couple of things to bear in mind: You can substitute Sucanat—an unrefined dehydrated cane juice available at any health food store—for cane sugar in any recipe, thus forgoing the cloying chemical taste the white stuff imparts to the characterless alcohol it produces in fermentation and ensuring a deeper taste and more complicated esters for the nose. In my experience, chokecherry wine made with Sucanat is always superior to the more insipid cane sugar kind—and don’t forget to mull some over the holidays with cinnamon, a clove or two and lemon and orange peel. Heaven.
Chokecherries, like most wild fruits, are also laden with airborne wild yeasts that collect on the skin of the fruit in a dusty white coating. Some folks like to let the cherries’ natural Saccharomyces companions do the work of fermentation, in which case you don’t want to wash the fruit after you’ve picked it, while others prefer to rid the wine must of natural yeasts with sulfur dioxide-producing Campden tablets that kill unwanted guests and dissipate within 24 hours. It’s up to you, but remember that using natural yeasts can be a crap shoot—you never know who’s coming to dinner, so beginners might want to invest in a packet of Campden tablets in order to start with a known quantity before adding their own wine of champagne yeast.
As for my pit-cracking acquaintance: The pits and leaves of chokecherries contain hydrocyanic acid and glucosides and can be toxic if eaten in quantity. Heat apparently mitigates some of the tannic bitterness of the fruit, but you don’t want to mess with cyanide. Proceed with extreme caution while tinkering off the beaten cherry path.