For most gardeners, stag’s horn sumac (also spelt sumach), Rhus typhina, is one of those shrubs you admire in other people’s gardens while being very glad it’s not in your own! The suckering properties are legendary, and its capacity for persistence notorious.
I remember being told as an innocent undergardener the-not quite apocryphal tale of a desperate man who, living close to an army base so having useful contacts, had blown his stag’s horn up with a hand-grenade in an attempt to get rid of it some 20 years earlier, ‘…and you can still see it coming up through his lawn….’
Gather flower heads
However, there is a little known and redeeming property to the stag’s horn as a flavouring and home-made spice. The bright pinkish-red flowering tufts which emerge in late summer are rich in malic acid, and can be used to make a refreshing, sweet-sour drink.
Select shrubs which haven’t been sprayed and are growing away from busy roadsides (those fine hairs on the chenille-like tufts will trap pollution readily) and on a nice dry day touch a few of the flower heads.
Suck your fingers to test for flavour: it’s not always the reddest tufts which have the sharpest bite. Once you’ve found the best tasting, snap or snip about half a dozen flower heads off, shake vigorously to dislodge any creepy crawlies and plunge them head down in a jug.
Cover with cold water (hot water can release tannins which taste unpleasantly bitter), bruise a little with a spoon or potato masher then leave in a cool place for at least two hours, at most overnight.
In the morning strain off the now bright goldy-orange to pinky-red juice (it seems to vary in colour greatly, but I’m uncertain as to why) through a sieve, then run it through a cotton cloth or coffee filter to make sure you’ve removed all those pesky hairs which will make you cough if you don’t.
The result can be drunk on its own, or with the spirit of your choice (I find it blends very nicely with plain London dry gin.)
Nice as a spice
Alternatively, you may like to save the flowers for winter use as a spice. Pick as before, but put them in a cool dark place inside a paper bag for a few days – or lay them on a cake rack inside the oven when you’ve finished cooking – to ensure the heads are really dry.
Wearing gloves, rub the seeds from the core, and pulse in a blender for about four minutes. Shake the result through a sieve and you will have sumac powder, almost identical to the spice sold in Middle Eastern shops.
The Turks use Rhus coriacea and you can also use R. glabra, but the flavour is the same. Sprinkle sumac powder on anything from tomato salads to chops, kebabs or poached egg. It gives a depth of sharpness similar but delightfully different to lemon or tamarind.
The classic use of sumac is in za’atar, a heady mix of Thymus capitata, cumin and sometimes chillies.Enjoy more Kitchen Garden reading in the monthly magazine. Click here to subscribe.