Deep purple chokecherries hang in heavy clusters, transparent where the sun’s golden August rays turn them into glistening orbs. Bowed branches sway heavily in the evening breeze, just ripe for the picking! Buckets full will be carried off by purple-stained, eager hands, to be turned into homemade batches of jellies and syrups. In some lucky households, this is a summer ritual handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter to grand daughter.
The summer ritual of sterilizing jars, boiling and mashing berries, straining deep purple juice with white cheese cloth, adding sugar and pectin, stirring and watching the deep purple juice fill sparkling jars waiting to be capped, captures the taste of summer. The kitchen, hot and steamy, is an whirl of hard work, kitchen conversations, and laughter, shared and cherished memories. And the end product is homemade Nebraska chokecherry jelly and syrup, proudly displayed on the kitchen counter, proudly shared with family and friends. Exploding the senses when opened and slathered on warm homemade bread, chokecherry jelly. It is the mental trip that just the name conjures up, memories of traipsing through the hills and prairies of Nebraska, just to find the coveted stand of bushes. Time is spent in the hot summer sun, carefully picking the plump berries, hearing the plink as each is dropped into the large bucket that grows warmer and warmer as the day’s picking lengthens. These golden memories make the jams and syrups even sweeter.
Thick clusters of the small white, five petaled blossoms, adorned the bushes this spring, turning into this year’s bumper crop of Nebraska’s purple gems. Maybe it has been the cooler temperatures of the last few weeks, or the recent showers, but this year’s berries are abundant and spectacular! We sent out open invitations to anyone who is eager to pick to come on out with their buckets. Four days ago the invitations were accepted, and the parking lot at Barn Anew Bed and Breakfast was full. I watched as berry pickers of all ages emerged from their cars carrying buckets, sacks, bags, ladders. The spirit of the day, even though it was hot, was one of adventure and celebration. A hot August day in the country? What is not to celebrate about that! And there were cherries to be picked by everyone. The little ones were picking away at the lower branches, bigger sisters and brothers were plucking away at the higher branches, and moms and dads were reaching above the head of all. But the real spot of honor was to those brave enough to climb the ladder up into the precarious branches, where, of course, the berries always appear larger, plumper, and sweeter when they are just out of reach. Although some of the early pickers had come out a couple of days earlier and enjoyed cooler temperatures, the hot August sun seems to be an important element of the tradition of Nebraska chokecherry picking.
The sounds in the courtyard were happy conversation and laughter, notably void of the sounds of the chirping birds. Their world was being invaded, and they had vanished or hidden. In years past, I have sent out invitations for pickers to come out with their buckets, only to have them arrive and stand staring in dismay at the bare branches. Those years the birds had beat us to the harvest, and they left no berries behind to share. My first experience with this phenomena, I accused some stealthy chokecherry thief of invading our premises in the night and stealing my berries. Outraged at that possibility, reality set in, and I had to accept the fact that it was the birds who had descended and ravaged the bushes. This year perhaps the birds have descended on a neighbor’s stand of chokecherry bushes. If so, I am sorry, but I would rather share the coveted berries with friends and neighbors.
Even with so many buckets filled, it seemed that last summer a large portion of the fruit fell to the ground and was wasted. One cold March day we noticed a large flock of robins descend into the courtyard. This early arrival of robins was unexpected and surprising. Upon closer observation, we watched as they picked their way through the thin crusted snow and soggy brown leaves of fall. Under this small covering was an abundant cache of dried chokecherries, that were providing the winter- starved birds a gratifying treat. So the cycle seemed complete. The sweet white blossoms in spring. The purple summer berries. The smooth, gray branches of fall. The winter’s gift of life.
Chokecherry syrup and jam are a m mainstay on the breakfast table at Barn Anew Bed and Breakfast. Guests from Europe and the eastern part of the United States have never heard of or eaten chokecherry jam. Our guests from Nebraska, who are familiar with it, are also nostalgic, sharing their own memories of chokecherry jam. We have selected a wide range of breakfast entrees that can be complimented with the deep purple sweet jams and syrup: sourdough pancakes, baked French toast, corn meal waffles, fresh homemade bread, chokecherry bread pudding. Most guests leave with several or many jars tucked away in their bags as gifts for friends, family or themselves. That is as good of a way as any for packing home of little of Nebraska with them. I guess that is like taking home Nebraska’s prairie sunshine, summer rainstorms, and fresh air, all captured in a bottle! P.S. we still have chokecherries, so call and bring your bucket out.
Place in large kettle
Barely cover with water
Cook covered until the berries are soft
Gently mash the cooked berries through a cheesecloth
Cook 3 cups of chokecherry juice and 6 ½ cups sugar on high to a rolling boil stirring constantly
Boil hard for 1 minute
Remove from heat and skim off foam
Add almond extract
Pour into sterilized jars up to ¼ inch of top
Cool and cap