spicebush-berry beer, autumn olive jelly

Spicebush berries—the reddest things on trees around here, at the moment—have a strong flavor—spicy, you might say—and my wife and I’ve been trying to figure out (intellectually, it ought to be said) for years how best to use them culinarily. There must be a traditional use for them, we imagine, but have never yet done the research to find it out. One reference in an old-timey Appalachian cookbook, I seem to recall, said something about using it to flavor groundhog. Fair enough, I thought, if the groundhog is gamey. Well, we’ve been making soda lately, and the wife says “how bout spicebush berry beer? (soda)” And I say, that sounds awful. I imagined it would be overly high pitched, kind of stomach turning even, and I said so, but she persisted and the stuff is gorgeous. Here is what she did:

Boil a handful or three of ripe red spicebush berries for a while in about a gallon of water, with a fair bit of sugar. Once your broth is strong enough, add some more sugar if it tastes like it wants it, remembering that some sugar will be lost in the fermentation to achieve carbonation. Strain all into a gallon jar or stockpot or crock. Next, optionally, add a small handful of raw spicebush berries—wife did this, but I think, in my opinion, she may have overdone it slightly. As always, I advise to err on the side of underdoing it. Next, put in something yeasty, ideally a cup of some other fermentation you have going. I often use my kombucha for this sort of thing. Next, cover it to keep flies out, stir it a few times a day until it gets bubbly, then put it in bottles and stick them in the refrigerator. Bottles left out in the warm for too long risk explosions.

Another wild berry ripe (just passing, really) we’ve been making much of this season is Autumn Olive. Its speckled, tannic, pink-red berries are my daughter’s favorite fruit, and they’re really very tasty. I’ve fermented them up in wine but they make it cloudy. But, they make an excellent jelly. Seems to have plenty of its own pectin. Interestingly, the juice you cook up out of the berries, rather than being that lovely pink, is grey-brown, but once you add sugar to it it goes grey-pink. Really pretty first rate. My first jelly, to be honest, and soon to be a family tradition.

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