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.

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ab ovo: tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 400 AD with eggs and lovage

We’re still struggling through over temperatures well into the 90s, and the last thing I feel like doing is cooking; even starting up the grill is fatiguing.  So I’ve been thinking about summer appetizers, those light, fresh, simple nibbles that highlight one or two ingredients and delight the eye and tongue with something unusual, and thought I’d feature a few of these beauties in the upcoming weeks.

These recipes will contain some ingredients which aren’t available widely, but they are fun to play with if you can get your hands on them.  I’ll suggest substitutes when I can.  What’s most important is to experiment consciously and purposefully with just one or two flavor combinations.

The first in my series of summer appetizers is an adaptation from the Culinaria Italy cookbook. Inspired by the fabled gourmand of ancient Rome, Apicius, who was likely a composite figure that is credited with creating the world’s first cookbook, this recipe takes what was originally a sauce for soft-boiled eggs and returns it to the egg — in a deviled-egg-type sweet and sour stuffing of pinenuts and lovage.

I love the idea of lounging about in white togas with broad purple edging, and eating beautifully prepared, local stuffed eggs, with, say, peacocks strutting to and fro and slaves to refresh your gin-n-tonics (which were not Roman, but the British have Roman blood, and well, it’s *my* fantasy, ok?).

The fish sauce might be the strangest item in this recipe, but it approximates the popular Roman fermented fish condiment, garum or liquamen.  If it wigs you out, just use salt, and in all cases, use it sparingly.

Lovage is one of those perennial herbs that takes a while to get started but then stubbornly persists on little water and filtered light, year after year.  It has the taste of strong, sweet, lemony celery. It can easily overwhelm a dish with its perfumey, vegetal bitterness.  In short, we don’t see it much in American recipes except for the occasional soup.  But as a main attraction in a simple small dish, it can be refreshing.  You might choose to substitute celery leaves, or even tarragon, which would work well but change the character of the dish.

To make the perfect hardboiled eggs, follow my recipe below.  You won’t get the hard, dry yolks or the greenish cast that comes from overcooking the eggs.

Pinenut and Lovage-Stuffed Eggs

In ovis hapalis: piper, ligusticum, nucleos infusos. Suffundes mel, acetum, liquamine temperabis. (Original recipe in Latin)

  • 12 hard boiled eggs
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, soaked in verjus, or a sweet wine such as Riesling, for 15-20 minutes
  • 2 tablespoon finely chopped lovage, or substitute equal amounts celery and parsley leaves
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 2 teaspoon cider vinegar
  • Several dashes Thai fish sauce or salt to taste

Prepare hard boiled eggs by placing eggs in cold water and turn heat on medium high.  When water starts to boil vigorously, remove eggs from heat and place in bowl of cool water to stop cooking.  Cool eggs and peel.

Slice eggs in half lengthwise and carefully remove egg yolks to bowl, reserving egg whites for stuffing.  Combine pine nuts, lovage, honey and egg yolks.  Using a mortar and pestle (or, less satisfactorily, a food processor), crush the mixture until pine nuts are mostly smashed and have released their oils into the yolks.  Add pepper, vinegar and fish sauce or salt to taste, mix well, and stuff the eggs.  Garnish each egg with a lovage leaf or a few reserved pinenuts that you have roasted until light brown.  Refrigerate eggs until serving.

AND…for your picnicking pleasure…

Bonus Potato Salad with Eggs, Pinenuts and Lovage

This preparation also makes a great potato salad, according to Retrogrouch, who ate it all as I was cleaning up the kitchen.

Boil 2-3 medium waxy potatoes. Cool potatoes and slice or cube while still warm.   Combine potatoes with the crushed pinenut and herb preparation above, then add 3-4 chopped hardboiled eggs.  Add a handful of parsley and more lovage, if you have it.  Blend with 1/4 cup mayonnaise, or to taste, and salt and pepper.  Chill for a couple of hours before serving and keep cold in cooler if you plan to serve it outdoors or after a Roman orgy, since it is highly perishable.