Scrumping sumac

Continuing the Middle Eastern theme – and the theme of ‘Really? You can forage that in Britain?” – this post is about the headily zingy sumac. This post is rather out of season, as the sumac is not yet in picking season, but anyway…

Sumac is a bright pink spice used in Middle Eastern cooking, and bursting with Vitamin C. I know it primarily from Palestinian cookery, where as well as having uses on its own it is also a key ingredient in the spice mix known as za’atar (you can buy the Zaytoun brand of za’atar in many Oxfam shops).

P1030763In Britain it is planted fairly commonly as an ornamental tree in gardens – and no wonder, as it’s a very beautiful, elegant tree. But few who have them realise that there is a harvest to be had. On the other hand, few who heard what a laborious process it is to turn it into sumac powder would bother. But there’s something about the long process and the labour-intensive bother involved that I like – when you end up with your small pot of pink zing at the end of it, it feels like a real treasure. Especially when it all began with a bit of cheeky scrumping.

P1030765What you’re picking are, I read, the ‘berries’, though you would swear they must be the flowers, as they are not berries in the sense we would normally understand. Each has a tiny hard seed at the centre of a ball of pink hairy fluff, and each of these is joined with others in a tight cluster that forms a spearhead shape that stands upright on the branch. Or perhaps they do form actual berries in warmer climates but not in the UK? If that is the case, not to worry, as this fluff produces much the same effect in the end. Note I am talking about the ‘Staghorn Sumac’ rather than any of the numerous other varieties, which seems to be a North American variety. It is, by the way, impossible to confuse the edible and the poisonous sumac – the latter has loose, white berries.

Harvesting is simple – simply break off the spear at the stem. Once you have your spearheads home, you need to separate the individual berries from their clusters. This is fairly long-winded, but the reward is that your fingers will taste of sumac’s incredibly lemony zing. Spread the berries out and leave to dry – I use our badly insulated attic, which gets incredibly warm.

Once I feel they’ve dried sufficiently, I whiz them in a food mixer to break them down a bit, and also to separate the very hard seeds (you could break your tooth on them and you do not want any in your end result) from the pink fluff. I then spread it out and dry again. Finally, another whiz and then the most laborious part: separating out the seeds from the powder.

I’d be delighted to learn of a more efficient method, but what I’ve land on so far is to sieve the powder, leaving the seeds behind. Why is this laborious? Well, because the powder, being quite fluffy, doesn’t drain easily through the seeds. There’s lot of shoogling and pressing to do, frankly.

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But the end result is this beautiful gold dust, or pink fluff. Use instead of lemon juice, or sprinkle onto egg dishes or cous cous, try a tea from it, pink lemonade or go the whole hog, find some thyme and sesame and make your very own za’atar.


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