Often considered an invasive species in the States, Elaeagnus umbellata, or Autumn Olive, is native to eastern Asia. Also known as Japanese Silverberry, they have specialized “nitrogen-fixing” root nodules that allow the plant to thrive in poor soil. They are sometimes used as a “nurse” tree, to help prepare soil for more desirable species, like Black Walnut. Introduced to America in the Nineteenth century, it was originally used in public works projects to control erosion on highway embankments and to reclaim strip-mined land. On the Island, Autumn Olive trees are frequently used for screening and windbreak purposes, and you can now find the plants all over Martha’s Vineyard. Many folks call the plant “Russian Olive” but this is a misnomer. Russian Olive is a distinct species, Elaeagnus angustifolia, with large yellow-green fruit and more silvery leaves. In contrast, Autumn Olive produce pinkish red currant-sized berries flecked with silver. Their leaves are a shiny green, with silvery scales on the underside to match the silver spots on the fruit.
Ripe off the tree, they have a tart, mouth puckering flavor, with an underlying sweetness, like tart cherries combined with currants. Extremely high in the antioxidant Lycopine, they can be used to make jams and jellies as well as wines and syrups. They are also excellent when dried and added to muffins, or used to make fruit leather.
At this year’s Martha’s Vineyard Wild Food Challenge, we sampled an Autumn Olive Chutney prepared by Shaun Brian Sells, executive chef of the Harbor View Hotel. He was generous enough to share his recipe with us, so we found a stand of the small trees, and picked a few cups of the olives to take home. We started with two cups of Autumn Olives, washed and dried, and placed in a medium sauce pan. To the pan we added 2 large orange peels, a stick of cinnamon, a quarter cup of apple cider vinegar, a half cup of orange juice, three-quarter of a cup of sugar, a quarter cup of water and a teaspoon of salt.
Place of over medium-low heat and simmer until it has the consistency of a loose jam anywhere from twenty to forty minutes. While the mixture cooks, peel and dice eight large shallots and sauté them in two tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Cook the shallots until tender, slightly sweet and translucent, but don’t let them brown.
Chef Sells calls for passing the olive mixture through a ricer and discarding the seeds. Since we don’t own a ricer, we ran it through a food mill instead, and then used a mesh strainer to remove any remaining seeds that snuck through.
When ready, we folded the shallots in and added salt to taste.
Once cooled, it produced a chunky chutney that had hints of spice and and zesty orange flavor that complimented the subtle sweetness. That said, it still skews more toward the savory side of things, with a pronounced shallot flavor that would make a rich accompaniment to any robust meat dish, like venison or duck.
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