The Sumac Harvest

The berries ripened while i was on my week-long trip out of state. They weren’t red yet when i left and they were almost brown when i came back. For maximum sour flavor i should have picked the berries when they were bright red because when the berries turn brown the flavor is gone. I left half the harvest on the tree because it had already shriveled and turned brown. I took my box cutter and gathered the remaining red berries by cutting the tips of the branches where the berries were clustered and placing them all in the wheelbarrow. Hands sticky with berry residue and tree sap i hopped down off of the chair i’d been standing on and prepared to drive the wheel barrow through the tall grass. One of the websites i’d looked at when researching how to harvest sumac had said that if you licked your fingers after handling the berries you would taste the sour flavor of sumac. I licked my hand. It was sour, exactly like sumac or lemon. Yes! Perhaps the berries that still had some red on them were salvageable. Next year i wouldn’t go out of town during the month of harvest and i’d watch the color of the berries more closely but it couldn’t be helped this year so i just had to salvage what i could and hope for the best. I brought the berries into the kitchen and started pulling them off the branches with my fingers over a metal bowl. There were many little white spiders hiding amongst the branches. I kept having to get them on a stick and throw them outside. Getting the berries off the branches took forever! In hindsight, if i had dried the berries on the branches, then pulled them off, it would have been much easier and more of the flavor would have stayed with the berries instead of on my fingers. When i was finished with that step i had a pile of bare branches and a bowl full of reddish berries. I spread the berries out on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Then i placed the berries in the oven. I turned the oven light on. When i was home i would turn the oven on and then switch it off quickly. I would continue this routine throughout the day. This dried the berries pretty well. However, it did not dry them completely. Their skins became shriveled and they began to toast. I had to stop because i didn’t want a toasted flavor. I wanted a sour flavor. If i had continued i would have burnt the skin of the berries and the whole harvest would have been wasted. So i stopped. But the berries still had a little moisture in them and it would gum up the coffee grinder, making it difficult to grind the berries into a powder later in the process. I decided that for next year’s harvest i would put the cookie sheet in the extension shed for days. The august heat in texas in an un-air-conditioned shed would definitely do the trick and it wouldn’t burn the skins of the berries or give an undesired toasted flavor to the powder. At this point i poured some of the berries into the coffee grinder and ground the berries into a powder in batches. As i said, there was still a little moisture in the berries and it gummed the powder up, sticking it to the blades and the sides of the coffee grinder. I had to stop grinding the berries before they were completely powdered, leaving little hard bits of the center of each berry, because once again i was cooking the powder and eliminating the sour flavor and replacing it with a toasted one. The coffee grinder was working so hard the parts became hot to the touch and i was accidentally cooking the berries. I had hoped to share some of the finished product of the sumac harvest with my sweet friend who had given me the chives plant. However, i quickly realized that this first year’s harvest was going to be an experimental batch and next year i would produce a crop fit for regular consumption. This batch would be for me as i knew not to bite down too hard on anything with the sumac sprinkled on it in case there was a hard bit of the center of the berries that didn’t get ground all the way. I spread the dark red powder on parchment paper laid out on a cookie sheet and left it in the open air of the kitchen for a day to dry out further. When it was finished i placed some of it in a small travel-sized jar and stored the rest in a regular jar. This year’s harvest, i keep in the freezer so it won’t mold but i hope to process next year’s harvest better so that the berries and resulting powder are dryer and ground more finely. That way no teeth will be broken and i can store it at room temperature without worrying about it molding. Also, next year i will harvest the berries on time so there will be more berries in the bowl and the flavor will be at maximum sourness!

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