West Coast Wild Harvest Issue 1 Spring/Summer 2016 - Page 65

HISTORICAL Grinding the red elderberries into a paste Our finished fruit leather was a dark purple with a flexible nature and oily texture. Initially, the flavour was nice but the aftertaste has a difficult-to-describe pungency that I don’t like. We packaged and froze the fruit leather in the hope that the flavour would improve with storage, which wasn’t an unreasonable suspicion given the pervasiveness of this practice among First Nations. Storage and Soaking Besides storage, a few ethnographies also mention soaking the cooked fruit in water. While working with the Puyallup and Nisqually, Marian Smith noted that after red elderberries were boiled they were “put into loosely woven baskets which had been well lined with maple leaves. The basket was carefully covered with the same kind of leaves and submerged in a running stream. It took about a month for the berries to cure and be ready to eat. When finished they formed a thick paste ‘as yellow as butter.’ After the basket was opened it had to be kept in the water and the paste was used regularly until it was gone.” Contrary to other ethnographies that ascribe marginal flavour to red elderberry, Smith goes on to say “Elderberry paste was mixed with other dried berries to heighten their flavor.” Albert Reagan documented a similar method of storing (or treating?) red elderberries among the Hoh and Quileute: “The cooked product is wrapped in skunk-cabbage leaves and buried in the muck in some swampy place, to be dug up when needed.” While cool temperatures and low oxidation rates in submerged environments provide the most likely explanation for this practice, it is conceivable that water storage was a desirable means of leaching out bad tasting constituents in the cooked berries, or slightly fermenting the fruit. Water storage of red elderberries was also practiced in other parts of the Pacific Northwest. According to elders interviewed by Nancy Turner and Randy Bouchard, the Squamish also stored red elderberries in water. The berries were cooked until they formed a “molasses-like mass” and placed in a special red cedar basket called tl’pat, which was anchored underwater. When the berries were needed, they were pulled up, the required amount removed, and the remainder re-submerged. August Jack concisely describes the process in a 1955 interview with Major Mathews: “Elderberry put in sack, you know Indian sack; put sack in creek so clean water run over them and keep them fresh. By and by get sack out of creek, take some berry out, put sack back again.” The Skagit similarly employed this method, as described by McCormick Collins: “the women might preserve [red elderberries] by wrapping them in maple leaves and putting them in a hole dug in wet sand.” Red elderberry fruit leather SPRING/SUMMER 2016 65