Ode to the Autumn Olive
I have know for a while that autumn olives (Elaeagnus umbellata) were edible. I just never took the time to go after them. But this year seems to be the year when I started to forage more consistently (bird cherries, wineberries, elderberries, chestnuts, Japanese quince, pawpaws, wild grapes etc) and so when a shrub of autumn olives shimmering in yesterday’s morning sun called to me, I grabbed a bucket and I started to pick. Let me tell you what a nice way to while away an hour it was (and do something useful too!). Warm (but not too warm) sun on my back, the berries like little prayer grains under my fingers, my mind ticking all the reasons such a cursed plant (by some) provides for thankfulness. Because, truly, what’s not to like about autumn olives?
– it’s easy to grow and it grows itself quite well too. It seems to be quite pest-free, fungus-free, rot-free, blight-free.. perfect for organic cultivation. Of how many fruit trees can you say that in Virginia?
– it’s easy to pick: no thorn (unlike blackberries), easy to reach (unlike wild cherries or wild grapes), and does not stain (unlike mulberries… or wild grapes).
– it ripens together (unlike blueberries) and the berries will hang on the trees in good conditions for weeks at a time (not so with raspberries). So there is no pressure along the line of “must.be.picked.NOW” or to go out every other days to pick. How accommodating!
– it’s prolific providing lots and lots of fruit (unlike super-shy fruiter pawpaws). Branches loaded with berries arch back and touch the ground.
– it’s an attractive plant (so attractive that it has been planted as ornamental) with sweet perfumed blossoms in the spring, silvery leaves that dance in the wind and bright red berries flecked with gold.
– the bears leave them alone (unlike cherries).
– harvest season is in the fall when snakes are less actives and there are no flies, no gnats, no chewing, blood-thirsty biting, $#@&!!! insects.
– it’s a thrifty plant that thrives in waste places and has been planted to control erosion and as wind break.
– the berries are loaded in lycopen (15 times what’s in tomatoes). Because, you know, there are people to whom you must show such “health” benefits before they’ll even look at any new food. So I thought I’d mention that if you need such justification.
And – best of all – they are tasty! Wait long enough in the fall for the berries to fully ripen, and the proverbial astringency and tartness is quite tame. The ones I have picked in the last few days were in fact less tart than currants.
Ah yes, some say it’s invasive, but I can only like a plant with such will to live and such gentle generosity. I have a lot more complaints on the invasivity scale when it comes to kudzu, Canada thistle (not originally from Canada!) or poison ivy (a native!). If we are going to be invaded by plants, then autumn olive gets my vote.
I gently cooked the berries with water and then pressed them through a jelly bag, and then again through a sieve. My beloved food mill is currently “in the shop” awaiting repair. Imagine, I have managed to wear out the spring mechanism in the grinding plate – can’t think how – and so I had to make do with what I have. A food mill would have been a lot better so use that if you have one). I then measured the liquid and to each liter of thick juice, I added 750g of sugar and cooked again until gel point. It did get quite nicely, but next time, I will use very little water and less sugar (it’s now a little too sweet for my taste). Still it jelled quite nicely.
I also saved some of the juicy purée and stuck it in the fridge. Big surprise! The red pulp dropped at the bottom of the jar, and the top was a milky juice – a dead ringer for pastis or syrup of orgeat in appearance – and yet amazingly refreshing and surprisingly good. Not need to add any sugar either. Sam Thayer explains that the lycopen not being water soluble separates from the juice. Do read Sam’s article by the way – it is a most comprehensive overview of autumn olive that you are likely to find anywhere.
Next? I am going to try to make fruit leather (I went back out today to take a walk and just so open to take some bags with me – another half gallon of autumn olive berries is now awaiting). Both Sam Thayer and Leslie of We are Made of Dreams and Bones swear by it. And I know it WILL jell!
(and I have my eyes on yet another shrub…. lalalala)