It’s time. The bushes are heavy with ripe Nanking cherries, and the birds haven’t managed to get at them all – Nankings are those small, brilliant red cherries that grow up against their branches, rather than dangle on stems like a Bing or Evans. A kind neighbour took pity on me picking cherries out by the road and brought me a bag she had picked from her back yard. This is what I call being neighbourly. (And yes, she got the biggest jar on her step this morning.) Nanking cherries are perhaps my favourite foraged fruit – and yet there’s not a lot you can do with them. They’re juicy but pit-heavy; I’ve heard of people pitting theirs to make pies, but can’t imagine what you’d be left with. I’m not sure I’m up to the task.
It’s much easier to dump all you can manage to pick into a big pot, add a bit of water, and coax them to release their juice on the stovetop, mashing with a potato masher to relieve the pits of their flesh before pouring the ruby sludge through a sieve into a bowl. What you wind up with is this brilliant red juice that can be sweetened into syrup to use in cocktails and sparkling water, or simmered with sugar, lemon juice and a bit of pectin (for insurance purposes) to make crazy lovely jelly.
A paper muffin liner makes an easy jar label – with a built-in skirt! And I sprayed some snap-on lids with chalkboard spray paint. I’m so Pinterest-y.
I’ve never attempted Nanking cherry jelly without pectin as a backup – mostly, I think, because the bushes are few and far between and I didn’t want to have to find more; also because most recipes out there call for packaged pectin. But this jelly sets up so quickly and easily – and is so solid – that I suspect it would work with less or even no added pectin. And if for some reason it doesn’t set, we already know the syrup could be put to perfectly good use – if not in Prosecco or a G&T, drizzled over pancakes – so that’s hardly a problem.
The problem with most jam and jelly recipes is that they call for a specific measurement of fruit, and when you’re picking your own, you’re not likely to come up with an exact number. Most recipes I found for Nanking cherry jelly called for around 16 cups, and I only wound up at around 13 because a kind neighbour took pity on me picking cherries out by the street and came out to share an enormous bag she had harvested from her back yard. But if you have less, you can still make jelly – just go by the quantity of juice you manage to extract, and add sugar (and pectin) accordingly.