I spent one of the most beautiful fall days this past weekend picking and drying sumac. Sumac is one of my favorite bushes. They are called bushes but really small trees, grow here on the property and are unusually shaped. In fact at the end of the driveway, a lone sumac bush stands as almost an ornamental tree to mark the entrance. I pick the branches and berries early in the fall before the seriously cold weather sets in and spoils the colour of the berries but turning the leaves a blood red. I remember as a child spending time on my grandparents farm in Michigan, there were many sumac bushes growing in their sandy soil. There was also said to be an indigenous burial ground on their farm and old sumac trees were clustered in this area. I felt connected to this land and associated the with the sumac bushes in a spiritual way.
I use the berries and branches for fall and winter decorations. I also dry the berry clusters for use in spice mixtures, or sprinkling directly on salads or dips and also to make tea; of course it is a staple in our farm cocktails. Sumac claims to have have a number of health properties. It is high in vitamin C, can be used as a poultice on burns and wounds by grinding the berries into a powder, to aid digestion by steeping the berries in water, straining the mixture and drinking it cold, and to cure sore throats and cold sores. When I was younger and interested in dying fabrics, I ground the berries and infused with warm water to make a red dye.
Mostly, I love using sumac in food. One of my favorite “Ottolenghi” inspired salads uses pita bread broken and sauted in a pan with almonds and sumac added in at the end before serving and heaped on top of a bed of spinach and red onions. Sumac has a citrus flavour and when you rub the individual berries between your fingers the flavours are released. Chef McKenna here at the farm uses sumac instead of citrus in his cooking simply because lemons are not local and sumac is a tangy and tasty alternative.
Sumac is increasing finding popularity. I notice that in restaurants or in cooking magazines I see it used more frequently but years ago who would have have seen it? The sumac bush is native to the Middle East and sumac as a spice is a staple in these countries. Sumac is the main component of Za’atar a delicious spice mixture that used widely in middle eastern cooking. I make a mixture here with our garden thyme, oregano, sea salt and sumac.
I pick the berry clusters before too much frost has hit them, late in the summer, early fall. The berries are a deep red and the leaves just starting to turn colour. Don’t wash them as the “dusty” feeling on the berries is what holds the vitamins. I dry the berries out, in front of our cook stove which is a perfect slow drying method. You can leave them on a tray out of the sun until the berries are dry - this takes a few days.
Then remove the berries from the clusters and pick out any sticks or impurities. I grind them in a blender and store in a mason jar to use throughout the year. I also add sumac to a honey syrup for a cocktail or tea base. An easy way to use the sumac berry is to put the entire cluster into cold water and let it steep for several days, strain and use as a lemony drink full of vitamin C.
If you don’t want to make it yourself and aren’t near any sumac trees - good news. It is available in most all bulk or health food stores in the spice section. Enjoy using this spice! The tastiest use is to simply sprinkle a teaspoon before serving on top of a salad, on roasted vegetables or roasted chicken. It will give your food a little zest.