Sunday, September 7, 2014

A New Fruit in my Lexicon

a small bowl of Aronia Berries
My friend Deb called me yesterday asking if I would be interested in having some aronia berries. I was unsure exactly what she was even saying, as I had never heard this word before. I asked her to spell the word: A-R-O-N-I-A. Okay, still didn't know what she was talking about, so I typed that into my browser and checked out what Wikipedia had to say. I have heard disparaging remarks about the veracity of Wikipedia information, but I have found that in general it gets you started with a good groundwork from which to build a knowledge base.

Aronia berries can come in red, purple or black varieties, though the ones I was given are definitely on the blackish side. The berries are sometimes called choke berries but this is confusing because there are also fruits called choke cherries, a completely different plant. The word "choke" preceding these berry names is not just given for nothing! Choke cherries and these Aronia / choke berries are highly astringent. Of course, anything really astringent, puckery-tart like these fruits also generally means they are really good for you. They do not cause you to choke, but tart, oh yes they are!

Berries and Fall foliage:
If you are a red wine drinker and are familiar with the tannins in some high end red wines that must age for 20 years before they are drinkable - tannins are what give the wines their ability to age, and what makes the wines undrinkable when young. Tannins also are in large part the reason red wine (in moderation) is so good for health. Aronia berry skins are also high in tannins, and that dry, puckering mouthfeel is what you get biting into an aronia berry. The inner fruit is not terribly sweet nor flavorful.

Aronia melanocarpa is one of the scientific names given to the aronia berry, but there is some confusion here. Suffice to say that they are also called Photinia melanocarpa and it gets confusing from there. The fruit of course is high in antioxidants; in fact higher than blueberries and cranberries. There are studies being done on all the health benefits, and these berries are being called yet another "super-fruit", with claims they may help prevent cancer, diabetes, help with macular degeneration, alzheimer's and a host of other ailments and illnesses. These bushes can grow wild, and actually have not been cultivated on a grand scale in the US. What is being done with them has been leaning toward juices, and blends with other fruits, blueberry or apple being the most common. There is some research being done on adding them to grapes for wine, as the skins are so deep purple and the fruit itself lends well to this application. Aronia wine recipes are all around the internet.
Closeup of Aronia berries or Black Chokeberries

Size of the berries in my hand
Aronia berries have been around for a very long time. Native Americans used them very long ago, whether dried and reconstituted or ground into powder. The bushes are extremely forgiving of soil and climate and they grow even up to Zone 3 with a cold factor of up to -40 degrees F. The fruits can be dried or frozen for later use. The bushes can vary in size, depending on what variety is planted. Some newer hybrid varieties can be dwarf. Normally the bushes will grow to 6 to 8 feet tall, with a spreading habit. In spring the bush is covered in little white flowers. In Fall the foliage turns a brilliant yellow/orange/red. The berries are roughly the size of blueberries, with some tinier and some a little larger. On average they are about 3/8-inch in diameter. The skins of aronia berries are tougher than blueberry skins. The inside fruit is a bright purplish red, with small seeds that are not particularly noticeable when eating.  
Fruit cut across (left) and vertically (right)

I have yet to actually do anything with these berries, although I am preparing ideas. I looked up recipes last evening and most say the berries are more tolerable once they've been frozen, or left to go through a couple of frosts before picking. Others say they are better if cooked. Or frozen, then cooked. I am hoping to make a little syrup and a little jam or preserves. In all, I have 3 pounds of berries to work with. More info on recipes will be forthcoming once I have worked with them. For now I have washed them and set them out on trays to freeze. Once solid, I will pack them into appropriate amounts in freezer zip-top bags. Freezing them on the trays will allow the individual berries to be separated out for use when that time comes.

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. I would love to hear from you, to help me continue my journey to explore diverse culinary experiences and hopefully to start you on a journey of your own. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.