as american as roman honey pickled cherries with savory

IMG_3581Looking for a new locavore cherry recipe in anticipation of the sour cherry crop now ready to go in the Eugene area?  Go no farther than ancient Rome.

A fellow participant in the Cult of Pre-Pasteurian Preservation and Food Preparation Facebook group page, Justin Mansfield, wrote that one of his favorite Roman preservation recipes is this one, a pickled cherry concoction using honey, red wine vinegar, and savory. He provides some details for Classics geeks and historical recreators:

Since there’s some interest, here’s the original recipe, from the 10th century Roman agricultural collection Geoponica (Farm Work) 10.42: Περὶ διαμονῆς κερασίων· Τοῦ Αὐτοῦ. Κεράσια ἀφαιρεθέντα τοῦ δένδρου πρὸ ἀνατολῶν ἡλίου, καὶ εἰς σκεῦος ἐμβεβλημένα, προϋποβληθείσης εἰς τὸν πυθμένα θρύμβης, εἶτα κερασίων, καὶ πάλιν θρύμβης, καὶ ὀξυμέλιτος γλυκέος ἐπιβαλλομένου φυλάττεται· καὶ εἰς καλάμους δὲ ὡσαύτως φυλάττεται.On the preservation of cherries, by same {i.e. this recipe is excerpted from Florentius, a lost author of the Imperial era}. Cherries that are picked from the tree before sunrise and put into a container, with savory first strewn over the bottom, then cherries, then once again savory, and sweet oxymel added on top, will keep. They’ll also keep the same way with rushes.

The species referenced are probably Prunus cerasus, and Satureja thymbra respectively. (No idea what kind of rush is referred to here… the name refers to several species. Dalby also points out that it’s unclear if the meaning is “laid out on rush mats” or “with rush-leaves used in place of savory.”)

He also notes that other sources indicate the honey:vinegar ratio should be between 6-8:1 parts by volume, not weight.  I opted for less sweet, and may just regret it, since I chose a very full-flavor, acidic Italian cabernet vinegar.

The cherries should be sour pie cherries, not sweet ones (but I’m willing to look the other way if you can’t get sour).  The recipe reads as if the Romans didn’t pit the cherries, but you may opt to do so.  I usually buy my sour cherries at Hentze Farm in Junction City, already bagged and pitted because I’m so lazy.  Pros: no sticky pitting on a hot day; easier to eat final product; and you get a quart or so of the most glorious juice in the world.  Cons: not nearly as pretty as intact cherries; you’ll need to pick through the cherries for bruised ones, as the machine handles them roughly; and you don’t get the nice almond flavor from the pits when pickling them.  In either case, you must use sour cherries almost immediately or freeze them, as they are exceedingly fragile.

Romans didn’t cook with sugar; honey was a basic sweetener.  For locavores, you already likely rely heavily on honey and even might have a hive or two to help mitigate the bee crisis.  As for me, I made this recipe with a wild star thistle honey I bought on the road in California, since it seems vaguely Mediterranean and has the scent of almonds from nearby groves (or so I fantasize).  But if you’re in the market, there’s some local thistle honey that’s being sold at Sundance, distributed with other wonderful varieties like pennyroyal, snowberry, meadowfoam, buckwheat, and coriander. (The coriander is grown in fields north of Eugene, Hummingbird Wholesale tells me, and the pennyroyal tastes a little like mint.)  Also in honey news, I hope you caught the interview with new Eugenius and prolific cookbook author Marie Simmons on Food for Thought on KLCC last weekend.  She has just published a book on honey, with history and recipes.  Marie was our last interview before our summer hiatus, so check out the archive if you missed it and you miss us! :-)

Anyway, the Roman pickled cherry recipe is wonderful with homemade duck rillettes, which I had for breakfast in a moment of sheer decadence.  Life’s too short for Cheerios.  As Epicurus would have said, had he known the phrase, carpe diem!  The savory brings out a, well, savory quality of the cherries.

Honey Pickled Cherries with Savory

Makes one quart.

  • 4 cups sour cherries, either pitted or not
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1/8 cup wine vinegar
  • 12 two-inch sprigs of savory (either winter or summer; I used winter, which is stronger)

Wash and sterilize a quart jar.  If you are using fresh sour cherries, rinse and sort out the bad ones.  If you are using pitted cherries, strain cherries and sort for badly bruised ones.  Reserve the juice unless you are completely nuts.  Pour yourself a shot of pure sour cherry nectar and knock it back.  Ah, there.  OK, now proceed.

Heat the honey and wine vinegar in a medium saucepan, then take off heat and let the cherries soak in the mixture for a few minutes.

Rinse savory.  Place 3-4 sprigs at the bottom of the jar, then add another layer in the middle, then add some on top to help keep the cherries immersed in the liquid.

Using a jar funnel, carefully ladle the cherries into your jar, pressing down gently to fill gaps, and adding savory in the middle and on top.  Fill with 2 inches head space.  You may have more cherries than necessary; if so, enjoy over ice cream with more honey.  If there is not enough liquid, either add back the juice you removed or press down a little harder on whole cherries to encourage them to exude juice.

Place on a plate, and cover jar with cheesecloth.  If you used unpitted cherries, it is especially important that you have enough overflow capacity. Let sit on counter for 48 hours minimum.  At this point, taste and decide if you want to ferment longer for a fizzier, deeper, sweet-sour flavor, or otherwise refrigerate.  Pitted cherries will ferment faster.

Enjoy as a condiment with any roast meat or sausage, as a special side on a cheese plate, or, as I just did, with duck rillettes.

One thought on “as american as roman honey pickled cherries with savory

  1. Iustinus 3 July 2013 / 10:52 pm

    Hey, it’s Justin. Here are some further comments:

    Galen gives two recipes for oxymel. In one he says to use two parts honey to one part vinegar, and dilute it with water—I don’t recommend using this. In another he says the most sour oxymeli is four parts, and the sweetest eight parts honey to vinegar. So yeah, 6—8 parts, to taste, is about right. (I could swear there are a couple other sources that give ratios, but no luck finding them right now).

    While the recipe doesn’t say whether the cherries are preserved whole, the idea that they would be pitted isn’t *too* outlandish: the Romans LOVED foods that were chopped, ground, puréed, or reduced to a paste… it’s quite possible to imagine the cherries being served pitted and chopped up to some degree or another. That said, many preservation recipes do seem to assume the fruits will be stored whole.

    This recipe is definitely more authentic, and I would argue better, with sour cherries. However, I have also made it with sweet cherries, and it wasn’t bad either (you might want to reduce the honey:vinegar ratio if you do this though). I also tend to like it better the more savory is added. The final taste is bizarrely almost spicy—I’ve had people ask where that comes from, if there is no pepper (or, worse, peppers) in it. So far as I can tell, it’s the savory, though I’m sure the tang of the cherries and the vinegar adds to it.

    Of the honey varieties you list, I’d definitely call pennyroyal and coriander the most authentic. Not only do they grow in Europe, but they were both among the Romans’ favorite herbs. I think I have an ancient source somewhere that lists what herbs produce the best honey… may even be Pliny.

    Duck rillettes definitely sound Roman! Iced cream, of course, does not, but this recipe is definitely good on that too ;)

    Like

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