Many Montanans experienced a smokin’ hot summer, as haze drifted south from Canada and eventually from other areas, permeating the air and creating a sultry layer of smog beginning in June, which seemed unusually early. Despite summer being hazy, the native fruit harvest was bright. June berry, currant, and chokecherries were bountiful, and many shelter belts were loaded with plums and apples.
The plump juicy quality of fruit was so exceptional it caused sparks of creativity to well up within and summon an idea worth pursuing one evening, the traditional colonial fruit preservation practice known as shrubs.
Honey and vinegar are both excellent for preserving, so during colonial times when refrigeration was not an option, this duo was brilliant for ensuring that the nutrients provided by the seasonal fruits could be consumed during the winter months.
Because fruits, honey and vinegar each contain nutrient rich vitamins, minerals and gut happy biology, shrubs provided sustaining nourishment and hydration during long harsh winters for colonists who were dependent upon nature’s “farmacy” to sustain health.
In addition to being a practical form of fruit preservation, shrubs have an uncanny ability to make ordinary creations extraordinary. The process for making shrubs is simple and does not need to require heat or canning. The end result is a tangy delicious syrup, which is rich in vital nutrients, and easily becomes the versatile artisan ingredient in many applications such as cocktails, mocktails, Italian sodas, ice cream topping, marinades, and salad dressings.
The key ingredients needed to make shrubs are: fruit, sweetener, vinegar and a little bit of patience. But the addition of herbs/spices takes the mixture next level.
Step one is to muddle the fruit and herbs/spices with the sweetener, and then back off and let them hang out for awhile (like a few hours or maybe overnight) before inviting vinegar to join them. When vinegar shows up with her intense qualities, the mixture is influenced, subtleties subside, and the mix livens up!
Depending on the type of fruit being used, the final results can either be a fairly quick (a day or two) or kind of slow (up to 2 weeks), because the ingredients need to mingle and become well acquainted with one another. As a general rule, softer berries and citrus will finish faster than more dense fruits such as peaches or apples.
Today, because of the ease of acquiring a myriad of interesting ingredients, shrub making is more art than science and intentional pairings result in memorable batches.
Traditionally the sweetener of choice was honey, but maple, coconut sugar, monk fruit or other sugar options may also be used. Apple cider is always the classic vinegar choice, but more elegant options may include champagne or white balsamic. Herbs and spices may also be added and create complex infusions and distinct flavor profiles that are divine. Certain herbs/spices pair beautifully with specific fruits, such as juneberries/mint, chokecherries/cardamom/pink pepper, plums/wild sage, apples/cinnamon/nutmeg; but the maker should be adventurous and enjoy the process of creative pairings.
After discovering a bounty of plums last week, my daughter created this recipe:
Plums, wild sage, local raw honey, & apple cider vinegar. Once ready, this shrub became the star ingredient in a mock tail that also included ginger beer and a squeeze of fresh lime served over ice.
Shrubs can also be a syrup substitution for Italian sodas, mixed with olive oil for a zesty salad dressing, or used as a flavorful marinade for veggies/meat.
Shrubs are truly a blast from the past, and definitely worthy of revival.
Owner, Cream of the West