Sourpuss

Staghorn smac (Rhus typhina) has been on my “summer foraging fails” list for the past two years. (Well, and before that too, but I wasn’t keeping track!) Finally, at long last, I found the magic combination: a staghorn sumac plant that a) was female, b) proffered fruit within reach, and c) didn’t line a major highway. Or d) require trespassing in someone’s field.

Staghorn sumac, finally within reach
Staghorn sumac, finally within reach

Not only did it have low growing branches, but some had been knocked to the ground – presumably by some of our notorious summer storms – so were even easier to harvest.

Close-up of a staghorn sumac drupe cluster
Close-up of a staghorn sumac drupe cluster

The last time I harvested staghorn sumac was 2018, and you may have noticed there was no follow up post about what I did with my bounty. That’s because I didn’t do anything with it.  I dropped the drupe clusters, whole, into a bowl of water, and let it sit. The result was … unremarkable, far short of the “sumac-ade” that all the foraging books croon about. I tossed it.

Staghorn sumac is the U. S. east coast’s cousin to Rhus coriaria, the source of the sumac seasoning used in Middle Eastern cooking.  Sumac seasoning is prized for its tart, lemony taste. Soaking the drupes in water should have produced a tart, lemony beverage. This year, I resolved to try again. I harvested a reasonable number of the clusters, rummaged through my copy of Forage, Harvest, Feast for recipe ideas, and set to the tedious business of separating the drupes from the little branches or twigs they cling to.

My sumac bounty, ready to process
My sumac bounty, ready to process

Remember, you can’t wash this stuff to get the dirt and debris off. The flavorful part of the sumac is actually the dark red coating on the outside of the individual berry or drupe. Plucking them all off, while mind-numbingly dull, served to a) avoid the tannic flavors of the branches messing up my recipe, b) discard the paler, aka less flavorful drupes and c) avoid the gray, mushy detritus that hinted at possible caterpillar inhabitants who were also enjoying sumac. My fingertips turned reddish and tangy to the taste, which helped keep me going.

Finding an actual caterpillar further strengthened my commitment to the painstaking work.

A caterpillar enjoying staghorn sumac for a snack
A caterpillar enjoying staghorn sumac for a snack

(Maryland Biodiversity Project  lists three moths which use staghorn sumac as a host, and of the three it appears to be a raspberry leaf roller moth (Olethreutes permundana). As somebody who grows garden raspberries, I gotta say, I’m not a fan.)

I had three main sumac products in mind: Sumac Essence (p. 404), Sumac Vodka (p, 406), and just regular ol’ ground sumac (p. 408).

Not a one of them turned out like I’d hoped.

Not. A. One.

I attributed the sumac essence failure to the fact that I didn’t really follow the instructions. I just tossed the drupes into water in the fridge for 48 hours, without measuring, well, anything. So when it came time to cook the “sumac-ade” liquid down to the syrupy sumac essence, the proportions – and thus the flavor – were probably off. It certainly didn’t strike me as anything like a native “tamarind” or “pomegranate molasses” (which you might remember I previously attempted with autumn olive).

The sumac vodka, though … that one I actually followed the recipe. And I still wasn’t impressed with the results. The instructions say to check the flavor after two weeks because staghorn sumac can give it a tannic-taste if the drupes are left in the vodka too long.

Sumac vodka underway
Sumac vodka underway

I checked it three days early and a) it still tasted like vodka, maybe just a wee bit more tart, and unfortunately b) it already had a noticeable tannic acid mouth-puckering effect. Not astringent like unripe persimmons, but definitely … unpleasant. Not something I want to mix with gin and lemon juice and drink as a cocktail.

Last but not least, the ground sumac. I peeled the smaller twigs of the main branches, dried these smaller clusters in my electric dehydrator for 24 hours, and then removed the individual drupes the rest of the way. Once I had liberated the reddest of the drupes, I blitzed them in my Nutribullet which made short work of removing the fuzzy bits from the seeds. I used the back of a spoon to push the powdery bits through a metal sieve, leaving the seeds and random remaining bits of debris.

Ground staghorn sumac seasoning
Ground staghorn sumac seasoning

I was so excited to have my own sumac seasoning for Middle Eastern dishes, like my favorite chicken kabobs or baba ganoush! I dipped a moistened fingertip into the powder, gave it a little lick and … nothing. I mean, it was sorta sour. But that sour was buried under layers of blandness and disappointment.

All that work, for naught. Where did I go wrong?

My only guess is that I harvested the drupes too early. They were collected over the Fourth of July weekend, and maybe that was too soon for the full flavor to develop. Plenty of clusters remain on the plant, and there has been NO significant rainfall recently so maybe I should try again. Or cut my losses and move on to the next foraging adventure.

What foraging forays are you experiencing this summer?

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