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Autumn Olives

by Marion Waak Newman

Fruits, Desserts, and Other Sweet Foods

Winter Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(4) page(s): 5 and 6

The Chinese olives, called kan lan, qing guo, huang lan, and/or bia lan, are botanically known as one of the fruit species Canarium. Some varieties may be indigenous to Asian and African tropical regions, others introduced from Persia circa 3,000 BCE, and still others are late comers, arriving in the past several hundred years. Olives in China, variety not certain, were first described in some detail in the third and fourth centuries CE. Their trees bears oval fruits with an internal stone that is pointed at both ends. They are used for an oil resin varnish known as 'elemi' and for printing inks. Being green, they symbolize life and from them a beverage is brewed that is wine-like to celebrate it. They are also used as edible fruits, as seeds, and for medicinal purposes; all gathered at the end of autumn.

The Chinese olive is used mainly in the south of China, particularly in the Canton, Sichuan, and Fukien provinces. They are used in stir-fry dishes and loved with chicken. They are one of the two most common items used in the making of crack seed, the other major crack-seed item is the fruit of the Chinese plum. Crack seed was discussed in this magazine in an article by Rachel Laudan in Volume 2(2) on page 5.

While the Chinese olive has a long history in Southern China, I would like to share something about another olive from China, commonly known as the Autumn Olive. It is, at best, only a distant cousin, but it is available in the United States. You may have seen it by the side of a highway as it is a roadside planting.

The first time I ever heard about, saw, or tasted an Autumn Olive was in early December 1989. I went on a bird watching walk at a preserve on Long Island along the Atlantic coast. During that trek, the leader stopped by a tall bush with dryed dark reddish berry-like fruits. He picked some and ate them, inviting us to do the same. The flavor was very distictive and even though the fruit was slightly desiccated because of frost, it was both sweet and very tart, at the same time.

Immediately, I thought that this flavored fruit would make a delicious jam that would have many uses. I could imagine it as a spread on jam and in a variety of other dishes. I asked the leader if anyone had ever made jam from these berries; he had not heard of such a use. I offered to pick some and experiment with them, and my idea was accepted. The following year, I went to look at the berries in October; they were all green. They did not turn a nice red until well into November; it is then that this olive is a beautiful fruit. There are many tight clusters of shiny red with grayish flecks, hanging on short branches which end with one to three leaves.

The Autumn olive, Elaeagnus umbellata), was introduced from Asia where it is native to China, Korea, and Japan; and known at least since the first half of the 19th century. It grows on a shrub or small tree, and is in the Oleaster family. It can grow up to twenty feet tall. Closely related to the Russian olive, which has yellow fruit, this olive was originally brought to the United States to reforest areas with severe erosion, for reclamation projects, and to attract wildlife. Now it grows from Maine south to Virginia, and west to Wisconsin and has nitrogen-fixing root nodules allowing it to grow in very poor soil where it tolerates severe drought.

The berries or fruits of this plant ripen very late in the year, around the end of October, making for an attractive food supply for wildlife, especially birds. Recently, it has become an invasive plant over-growing others and blocking out sunlight. The plant can kill everything that grows around or underneath it; and the birds who eat the fruit disperse the seeds far and wide.

When the ripe fruit is picked just before the first frost, the flavor is awesome and the fruit quite juicy. If you eat them then, the tartness will pucker your mouth, but sweetness is your reward. The flavor is reminiscent of several fruits from currants and cranberries to peaches.

For reasons I have yet to learn, each bush can have a slightly different flavor and a different level of sweetness. To solve the dilemma of which is which, I usually taste some berries from each bush before I start picking them. Since the pit is more than half of each berry, I need to remind you as I remind myself, there is need to pick double the amount needed.

Gathering Autumn Olives has always presented a problem for me. I pick the berries after work, always choosing the wrong day. It is usually windy, drizzling, and/or cold. I can not pick with gloves, so my hands are freezing and numb. I usually stop picking not because I have enough berries, but because my fingers are stiff and hurting. It is strange to be picking fruit under such cold conditions.

The first jam that I made was only seived through a food mill. It had passable color and flavor, but was not smooth enough for my tase because it had too much fiber. Though people who tasted the final product liked it, I was not happy with the texture. I realized that the food mill was the way to eliminate the large pits, but there was an additional need, to strain out some fiber. What I did was to force the juice through a fine strainer pressing down with a spoon. This made a brightly colored clearer juice, and it produced a very acceptable product. The finished item made this way has a rich deep red rather lovely color and a smoother mouthfeel even though it still contains some fiber. Some of my friends say that the tartness reminds them of beach plum jam.

Years ago I used commercial pectin to make my jams, but now I do it the 'old fashioned way' with equal parts of juice and sugar, some lemon juice, and I simmer it until it thickens.

I suggest, for American tastes, serving the jam with cream cheese on good pumpernickel, or another firm bread, or on quality crackers. For Chinese tastes, use it as the sweet in sweet and sour dishes. It is an excellent foil, in amounts of a tablespoon of two, for the hot in hot and sour dishes. It also makes a particularly good marriage with pork. When sharing some with the editor, she used it in several long-cooked red-simmered dishes adding star anise, soy sauce, slices of ginger, knots of scallions, and some wine. And speaking of wine, neither she not I could locate a recipe for an alcoholic beverage made with these olives. If you know of one, do advise us.

Should you want to make some Autumn Olive Jam and try your hand at using it in recipes American or Chinese, a recipe follows at the end of this article.
Marion Waak Newman is a great bird watcher, inventive and experienced cook, and a Senior College Laboratory Technician at Queens College in Flushing, New York.
Autumn Olive Jam
8 cups ripe Autumn olive fruits (yields about four cups juice)
4 cups granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1. Rinse berries, and be sure to remove leaves and stems
2. Put whole berries in a large pot and add about half inch of water. Simmer for half an hour or until the individual fruits are soft and the pit can easily be removed.
3. Stir a small amount of fruit through a food mil discarding the pits and setting the juice aside until all fruit is processed this way.
4. Next, seive the mashed fruit through a fine strainer. You will need a large spoon to press out all the juice.
1. Measure four cups of juice and put it in a heavy pot that has a thick bottom. Then add an equal amount of sugar and the lemon juice.
2. Simmer on low heat until the mixture thickens; this takes about one hour or more. Skim off any foam as it is cooking.
3. When at the desired consistency, pour into strilized jars and let cool. Use a funnel or you'll need to wipe any jam that drips on the edges or sides of the jars. Seal the jars and cool out of a draft.
4. If using commercial canning/jam jars, you should do the above filling process following their guidelines; if you do, the jam is shelf stable. If you do not have or want to use such equipemtn, refrigerate the jam when cool.
Note: The juice can be frozen for later use, though I don't.

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