Cherry blooming season is nearing its end in Japan, but our trees are just now bursting into bloom. “The cure for/This raucous world…/Late cherry blossoms,” wrote the great Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa, and as I walk to the subway each morning, I notice how the pink froth lights up the austere grey of the streets of Brussels. I take longer routes so that I can see more cherry trees and sometimes I take my lunch to the park where I experience my private hanami, flower viewing. Then I find stray petals tangled in my hair and clinging to my coat–reminders of our very late spring.
Don’t believe the perfumes named Cherry Blossom–real flowers smell nothing like the cherries we associate with cough syrup or flavored candy. They have a fresh, green scent, with an earthy rose accent. It’s as delicate as the pink confetti of cherry petals. Given the love the Japanese have for sakura, cherry blossom, it’s not surprising that during the spring season you also find all sorts of cherry blossom flavored delights, including soft drinks, chocolate, pastries, ice-cream and candy. Pierre Hermé, the renowned French pastry chef, even offers cherry blossom flavored macarons at his boutiques in Tokyo.
The truth is that the taste of cherry blossoms is even better than their smell, and if you have a cherry tree in the vicinity, it’s worth experiencing it. The flowers and leaves of the cherry tree contain a small amount of coumarin, the same component that gives tonka beans their delicious roasted almond and sweet hay aroma. Combined with a mellow green aroma, it’s a distinctive and memorable taste. Fresh cherry blossoms and leaves are preserved in salt, and then used to flavor rice, tea and sweets. Plum vinegar is added to the cherry blossom brine to accentuate the pink hue and fruity taste.
My favorite way to enjoy cherry blossoms is in tea. Sakura-yu, as it’s called in Japan, is often served at auspicious occasions, like engagements and weddings. To make it, you shake off the salt from the preserved buds and add 3-4 per each cup of boiling water. As the flowers steep, the petals unfold in sheer layers. It’s a very feminine looking tea cup, but the taste is salty and sour, with an aftertaste of apricot and almond. The briny, marine flavor is a surprise, and it’s much bolder than you would expect.
Using various parts of cherry trees in food is not limited to Japanese cuisine. My Ukrainian grandmother’s recipe for pickled cucumbers includes a generous handful of cherry leaves. She also adds them to gooseberry jams and syrups to accentuate the emerald green color and add a subtle hint of almond. Cherry branches are added to some marinades, since tannins in the bark ensure that pickles remain firm and crunchy. Cherry wood smoked barbecue is rich and sweet. I don’t remember eating cherry blossoms as a child, but I chewed the ambery sap oozing from cherry trunks as a sort of bubble gum. (Before you pity me as a poor, underfed Soviet child, I should say that my grandmother’s table was always laden with food, but I loved nothing more than to forage in the garden for edible treats.)
Preserved cherry blossoms can be found at Japanese stores, where you can ask for sakura no shiozuke (桜の塩漬け) cherry blossoms preserved with salt and vinegar. Also, look out for the salt preserved leaves, cherry blossom jam and flavored honey. If you have a tree, you can try salting the blossoms and leaves yourself, following this recipe from the Japan Times. On occasion, I’ve asked sellers at the farmer’s market to bring me some leaves from their sour cherry trees (those of the sweet varieties are not strongly flavored).
I realize that it’s a somewhat esoteric quest, but why not? Sometimes it’s good to slow down to smell the blossoms. Or even take a little bite.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin