DISCLAIMER: Do not eat or otherwise use any plants without doing your own research. I will not be liable if you misidentify a plant or follow misinformation I give (although if I give misinformation, please let me know!). P.S. This is not a plant profile, but rather an experiment in which I attempt to see if I can make something known to be toxic edible.
Nanking cherries, Prunus tomentosa
I’ve always loved cherries. I’m pretty sure most people who’ve tried cherries like them. Even more than my love of cherries, however, is my intense love for learning the ways of prehistoric and ancient bushcraft. So when I heard about a way of cooking them that was likely done in mesolithic times to get the maximum energy and shelf life out of these fruits, I knew in my heart that it was my destiny to try this.
Wild cherries are typically smaller than their cultivated counterparts, but often much more flavorful
I decided I would use Prunus tomentosa, the Nanking cherry, as this is an introduced species and therefore not particularly good for native habitats. In addition, it’s the easiest cherry for me to access in my vicinity, so I took advantage and grabbed a branch laden with the fruits.
Now the original steps call for simply grinding the cherry, seeds and all, then baking wrapped in a leaf in a very hot fire. However, as I don’t currently have convenient access to woodland where I can build a decent fire, I decided to take some extra precautions and then bake in an oven.
In South America, there is a root crop known as cassava (Manihot esculenta). It contains a multitude of cyanogenic glycosides (in the case of cassava, it’s linamarin), which your body metabolizes into hydrogen cyanide. Amygdalin and prunasin are the primary cyanogenic glycosides in the Rosaceae family, to which cherries belong. Cassava is often finely ground or diced and then soaked in water in order to remove the glycosides (and in laboratory tests it has been shown to be highly effective). I figured that just in case the warmth of my oven wasn’t enough to drive the chemicals off, the water would certainly serve as a backup.
Water mixture. It was left to soak overnight to ensure maximum removal of glycosides
So I ground the cherries and mived them with water and left it overnight, replacing the traditional jar lid with a permeable paper towel to ensure the cyanide wouldn’t all be released once I opened the jar and kill me. When that was done, I proceeded to makeshift a baking cup from foil and pour in the mixture, setting my oven to preheat at 225°C.
This ended up taking a long time
The biscuit ended up taking 2 hours to bake at that temperature. It ended up being slightly soft, with a lot of crunchiness from the seed casings. It had a very good flavor, tart, but with a hint of sweetness and a nutty flavor reminiscent of almonds (not the bitter almond flavor commonly associated with cyanide). It’s not a flavor you’d expect to get from cherries. Best part is, after eating the entire thing, I have experienced no symptoms of cyanide poisoning, despite the fact that this many cherry pits would be enough to hospitalize me. The next time I try making this, though, I’ll try it in an actual fire without added water to truly get that mesolithic feel.
Not the most appealing thing to look at, but definitely worth the effort
Why would an early human use something that, raw, would normally kill someone? Not only would it taste delicious (they didn’t often come across sweet things like is so common in modern society), but it’s a good way to preserve the sugar of the fruit and starches of the seed for future use in times when calories were not something so easy to come across. In addition, the seeds contain many vitamins and minerals which are important to cellular function. Most of the vitamins also store well after this method: though the vitamin C is lost, they likely ate many other fruits which had an abundance of vitamin C: for example, in the areas where these foods were eaten, sea buckthorn is commonly found (which supplies a massive amount of vitamin C year round).
So is this something I would recommend you try? Most definitely. I do, however, recommend as well that you do your own research before trying it and only try a small amount in case you’re allergic or accidentally mess up the process. Happy foraging!
Side note: Why, in modern society, would we have moved from these tart biscuits? Here’s my thought process: The first wheat products other than bread are finally being made in the middle ages, namely pastry. Since wheat provides plenty of calories, there’s no longer a need to eat cherry pits. People started removing the seeds from the now larger cultivated cherry to use in the modern version of this treat: the pie. But that’s just what I think. I’m probably wrong.