Red with an orange tint, often with a pinkish hue, cornelian cherry has an unmistakable color. From light crimson to deep scarlet, the fruit is like the celebration of the color red. Seductive visually, but aggressively tannic and astringent to the palate, the cornelian cherry is an intriguing fruit, often used in making jams, jellies and marmalades. However, there are devoted fans, enjoying its mouth-puckering tartness when eaten fresh while some turn away instantly with a wry face. Nevertheless, there are only a few to resist an Ottoman-style sherbet made of cornelian cherry, an opaque scarlet beauty, in a misty chilled glass.
A cross between a cranberry and a tart cherry is a unique taste of forests and mountains, often collected from the wild. Cornus mas or cornelian cherry is known as kızılcık in Turkish, though it may be called by many other regional names such as kiren, ergen, etc. The latter points to an interesting fact of the plant meaning early. A deciduous shrub or a small tree, the plant is the first flowering plant, with yellow flowers blooming in late winter, as early as February. A folk tale says that the cornelian cherry is the one who tricked the devil. The legend goes like that: the devil visits every fruit tree and decides to take refuge under the cornelian tree in order to collect all the fruit, noticing that it is first to bloom, it would be the first to give fruit. Time passes, green almonds and plums appear, cherries and apricots follow, then peaches ripen fully, there is still no sign from the cornelian tree. Summer ends, fall comes, the red fruits reluctantly appear, initially very tart, almost inedible to eat, eventually ripening to ruby red gaining a faint sweetness. The devil is furious, having missed all the luscious fruits of summer, remains with a handful of the bunch. The fact is cornelian is the earliest to flower, but the latest to give fruit, tricking many, even the devil.
Cornelian plant is valuable with its whole being. The leaves are rich with tannins; its wood is dense, useful for various purposes, from weaponry to walking sticks.
The wood is so dense that it does not float on water, but sinks, the denseness also giving it a resilient power. Despite its denseness, the wood is also pretty elastic, especially when kept damp submerged in water. In Ottoman times, the notorious use of cornelian wood stick was as an education or training tool, pupils would be caned for failing their duties or disobeying rules, pretty like whipping, a form of punishment once quite legitimate. Cornelian cherry wood training could have been contributory to the development of Ottoman palace cuisine, assessing discipline and order in the kitchen. Apprentices with unclean aprons and filthy fingernails would be treated with 200 blows of wet cornelian stick, very effective in convincing them to be clean and tidy at all times. The swishing sound of the cornelian whip might be dreadful, but having a stick at the house was common, not to treat children though, which might be the case at certain times, but to clean carpets and kilims, a good whip with the stick would shake off all the dust. Similarly, the stick would be utilized to puff up the wool or cotton for mattresses and duvets.
By all means, the cornelian plant is too good to have around, delightful with its yellow flowers in late winter, telltale of spring coming, and cheerful in late summer, signaling fall is soon. Jam or pickle, jelly or preserve, sherbet or vodka infusion, it will bring sunshine to your table in snowy winter days.
Recipe of the Week: What about a bright pink soup, refreshingly tart to perk up your day? The answer is cornelian tarhana soup, a local specialty of Bolu and Kastamonu provinces, known with the names kızılcık tarhanası, or kiren tarhanası. Though preparing tarhana as a winter provision is a laborious, which requires multiple steps that require fermentation etc., this one is rather quick and easy. Unlike other tarhana varieties, yoghurt is not used, as the much-favored tartness comes from the fruit. Take a kilogram or so of ripe cornelian cherries, pass them through sieve by kneading with your hand to obtain a bright pink fruit purée. Mix one part of this with two to three parts of flour and about two teaspoons of salt making a dough pretty much like a cookie dough. Make smallish walnut sized balls, flattened spread on clean kitchen towels and dry under shade or in a dehydrator, crumble into pellets or crumbs and dry further, until the whole thing ends up in a grainy a ready-to-cook soup mix. To cook, reconstitute about 3 tablespoons per head with a little water, add chicken broth or bone-stock and cook until thickens. The final trick: sizzle a few tablespoons of butter adding a clove or two of crushed garlic and pour on top of the soup. This is a soup to revive you in midst of winter.