Cherry Blossoms!

Cherry Blossom 1

Cherry blossom petals
The wind carries them away
Taking me with them

Sean Condon, Vancouver, British Columbia (2014 Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival, Honourable Mention)

One of the more profound moments of my short time living in Vancouver occurred by accident on a frigid spring morning at the Burrard skytrain station. It was crazy early and I had my headphones on to blot out the world as much as possible. I exited the train amidst the rest of the rabble and had begun the long climb up the central staircase to the street when a teenage Japanese girl beside me squealed.

It wasn’t a terror squeal, or a “look, its Johnny Depp!” noise, but it was enough to make me look up just in time to see a massive cloud of cherry blossoms descend down the staircase towards us. All the sakura trees up top had dropped their collective payloads simultaneously to form a dense, beautiful and unnervingly slow-moving tsunami of pink petals.

Whoooosh! The station filled with flowers and everyone gasped. Children whooped and spun. Couples drew closer. Even the proto-hipster guy (who hadn’t looked up from his book, even while disembarking the train) acknowledged the moment with a “huh”. The spell lasted about four magical, luxurious minutes before reality resumed… And I’d realized that by tallying amongst the cherry blossoms I missed my bus and was going to be late for work.

*laughs* It was worth it!  This was some serious Satori!

Cherry Blossom 2I think back to that moment in Van whenever I see cherry blossoms pop in the early spring. Here in CR they’re in nearly unanimous bloom, filling our humble skyline with explosions of vivid pink and white and covering the sidewalks with tiny reminders of life’s ephemeral beauty.

And yet despite all this cherry blossom noise literally in my face during my rides to ‘n from work… And despite working alongside Japanese cooks most of my career… And despite the obvious fact that cherry blossoms have the word “cherry” in their name… Until recently (like, this week) it had never occurred to me that you could actually eat cherry blossoms.

But you can! Japanese people do it all the time! Well, not all the time, mainly for select occasions… but we’ll get there. First and foremost if you want to join me on this newfound foraging quest we have to figure out our gear and exactly what type of tree we’re looking for.

What you will need to Forage Cherry Blossoms

Not much! *laughs* Just a paper bag and maybe a foot stool if you’re vertically challenged.

Identification

Identifying a proper cherry tree seems daunting due to the complete lack of information on their edibility in English-speaking foraging guides and food blogs. I was able to track down a couple sites: One that explains which trees aren’t cherries, one from Van that breaks down the differences between cherry trees and plum trees and an online field guide that can be purchased from the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Society shop.

Basically any cherry tree you find in North America in a city park or other suburban environment will be one of a handful of ornamental hybrids from Europe. They usually don’t produce fruit but all flower for a short period in the early spring. The wood is rough and pitted, ranging in colour from ebony to light brown with five-pointed flowers and (later on) blossoms that can be white, rosé, hot pink or every colour in between.

Now, if you ask someone from Japan (and I have!) they will tell you with absolute certainty that REAL sakura only grow in Japan and these North American cherry trees are but pale imposters. This is a pretty typical line and only sort-of true. Even if we were looking for an actual sakura tree (which we have here in CR at the Ishikari shrine!) we don’t necessarily need our blossoms to be any specific type of cherry. In fact any type of flowering cherry tree will do.

Cherry Blossom 3Harvesting

Avoid picking from immature or sickly-looking trees, trees in heavy traffic areas or ones that have been sprayed with chemicals. Trees on protected or private property are also off the list, unless you get permission from the owner, in which case go nuts!

To harvest a blossom just pluck an open one from the branch with about half an inch of stem attached, give it a shake to dislodge any bugs and pop it into your bag. Mix it up and pick from different branches to avoid stressing the tree… Trees have feelings man.

Taste and Aroma

As you harvest you might ask yourself “These things don’t smell like anything, why even bother?” and that’s pretty valid; I thought the exact same thing! Blossoms straight off the tree have only the lightest cherry-like smell. It’s only after processing that their deeper almond and apricot aromas are unlocked.

As for flavour: I popped a raw blossom into my mouth when I got home from picking and well… No discernible taste at all actually. But they’re not necessarily for eating. Blossoms are considered an “Aromatic” more suited for garnish and imparting aroma onto other foods.

This is a good thing, because the flowers, leaves, blossoms and fruit of the cherry tree contain minute traces of a chemical called Coumarin which makes ‘em smell great but can really do a number on the human liver. No worries though, you’d have to consume a garbage bag full of blossoms to feel any negative effects.

So, uh, Now What?   

Well, finding recipes for cherry blossoms seems to be just as hard as getting proper identification, but it’s not impossible. Japanese, Chinese and Russian recipes for cherry blossom syrup, liquors and tea exist, but require the services of Google Translator, a trip to your local specialty food store and a prayer.

Recipes for Japanese blossom tea and sweets are common, but require preserved cherry blossoms instead of fresh ones. Luckily I found a very well done Instructables article on how to perform such a pickling in three simple steps: Salt ‘em, cover ‘em in vinegar and then dry ‘em. These can then be re-hydrated later and served like a pungent cherry-flavoured tea for special occasions or used to flavour rice balls and wagashi.

I got to work by rubbing down 5 cups of blossoms (approx. 70g) with ¼ cup of salt (also 70g) in a wide bowl and poured 2 cups of cold water (475ml) over top. I laid a plate down over the blossoms to keep ‘em submerged and wrapped it up. After three days on my kitchen counter the change in both the colour and aroma of the blossoms was shocking!

Cherry Blossom 5They had gone from a bland rosé to a striking scarlet colour and the aroma had intensified into this powerful almost Amaretto-like smell. I discarded the salty water and gave these newly-empowered blossoms a light squeeze then divided them amongst two clean mason jars.

I had no plum vinegar, so pickling these babies wasn’t an option, but I did have plum wine! One Mason jar got the wine, while the other got a big handful of sugar and boiling water to make a kind-of cherry blossom simple syrup. Either way I figured that the result would taste fantastic in a spring cocktail. After four or five days I strained both concoctions and Crystal and I tasted the results.

Cherry Blossom 6The syrup was fantastic! It was light with a perfectly balanced sweetness and a subtle almond fragrance that would kill alongside some elderflower liquor and a bit of yuzu and soda. The blossoms had also added a whole new dimension of flavour to the plum wine and once again, the fragrance was off the chain. For my Next Post I’ll mix up a cocktail that will utilize these two powerful new aromatic tools in my bar kit.

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