September is the season of the magnificent Staghorn tree (Rhus typhina). It is a spectacular at this time of year when the ripe berries stand upright. In the winter, without the leaves, the branches with the fruit on top look like the antlers of a magnificent stag from which the Rhus typhina gets it’s common name.
I’ve been eyeing a local one up for months waiting in anticipation for the gorgeous cone like, downy, deep red fruits to come to maturity.
The reason why? The Staghorn tree is one of the sources of sumac spice, an ancient herb going back into ancient Egypt and beyond. It is used to make the gorgeous North African/Middle Eastern spice mix za’atar combined with thyme, oregano, cumin, sesame seeds and pepper. A zesty vibrant spice mix that is delicious as a coating for aubergine wedges or dried tomatoes. I first learnt about za’atar through the fantastic Afro-Vegan book by Bryant Terry (if you’re looking for soulful vegan recipes it’s well worth a read).
The Rhus typhina tree is not native to these borders but to North America. The Native Americans introduced us to a number of different uses for this tree. One of the other gorgeous things to make which they have taught us is sumacade. The drink is made by soaking the fruit in water producing a tangy lemonade type drink. You can taste the citrus flavours of the fruit in it’s raw form by stroking it with you finger.
But it’s sumac spice I’m really interested in making. It’s fairly simple to do and makes for wonderful additions to seasonings.
It’s best to collect the fruit prior to heavy rain as this washes away some of the flavours. Allow the fruit to dry out either using a de-hydrator overnight or setting putting it into the oven at a very low temperature for several hours.
After this, pull the fruit apart and place them into a blender. Surprisingly, instead of combining everything together, the blender does an amazing job of separating the fruit from the seeds.
The longest part of the process is to them strain the fruit through a fine sieve or colander to get the spice away from the seeds and stems.
All in all it takes an hour or so, depending on how much you have blended to create the final spice.
You can use sumac on it’s own or add other herbs to it. In an airtight container it will last a year. If you don’t use it all before then!
You can see my recipe version of za’atar here.
Cautionary Note: As with all wild food it’s best to use sense and sensibility before venturing and it’s essential to understand the types of sumac which can be harvested and which cannot. Some types of sumac trees have foliage which can cause allergies so it’s best to be cautious around this tree. Take an established good foraging book and a foraging expert if it’s new to you.