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Omnivore - Serviceberries, nanking cherries, urban foraging, etc.

WTF is a serviceberry!?

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  • Robby Astrove
  • Wild berries foraged by Concrete Jungle's Robby Astrove


"These are really cool and they were picked in Piedmont Park. That's rad!" is what Wrecking Bar Brewpub's chef Terry Koval told me about a batch of glistening nanking cherries he recently pickled. "We try to showcase what is available now. These are and they came from the park."

Grape-sized nanking cherries have a tart, sweet taste and pop up on fast-growing shrubs with pinkish white flowers. When the weather gets warm enough, they explode with so much fruit that the bush's stems are barely visible. The cherries at Wrecking Bar came from Concrete Jungle forager Robby Astrove. According to Astrove, most of the fruit and nuts Concrete Jungle forages come from plants that are untended in vacant lots, along the roadside, or from the property of willing participants.

Last month, Astrove, fellow forager Michael Hendricks of Indian Ridge Farm, and Miller Union chef/owner Steven Satterfield led a session at the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival called 'Forage Two Ways'. Satterfield highlighted the zeal many Southern chefs have for incorporating foraged ingredients into menus while cooking the audience greens and herbs Hendricks had foraged before the class. During the demo a bowl of foraged-that-morning nanking cherries and serviceberries were passed around like alien specimens to touch and taste.

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Never heard of a serviceberry? You are not alone. The term was coined by early settlers because the cloud of white blooms on the smallish trees coincided with the softening of the ground, as in soft enough to hold burial services for those who had died that winter. Sometimes they are called juneberries for the time of year when the white flowers are replaced with ripe purple fruit.

Serviceberries are abundant in Atlanta - as a native plant, and also thanks to Trees Atlanta. The organization is one of the most active groups planting them in the city right now, especially along its Beltline Arboretum project. Astrove likened a long stretch of the plantings in historic West End to a street orchard.

"It's so great. Everyone is working together, collaborating, and playing nice," says Astrove. "Serviceberries are good for us, great for birds ... a really underutilized native tree. I plant a lot of them and eat a lot of them. Incorporating serviceberries in restaurant menus will hopefully start the conversation with diners and maybe they will plant them in their yards and gardens."

Several local chefs and restaurants have hopped on the serviceberry bandwagon this season:

Chef Satterfield's berry soda from the foraging session was recently on the menu at Miller Union.

Jarrett Stieber, who served his last General Muir Eat Me Speak Me pop-up last Friday, featured a dish of crispy Georgia catfish, rutabaga, cauliflower, and pickled serviceberries. Steiber plans to feature more foraged ingredients now that he has transitioned to dinner service Mondays and Tuesdays at Gato in Candler Park.

The Pinewood's Julian Goglia currently has a tasty gin cocktail called Brass Band Blues on the menu. It's made with Sorel liqueur, lime, and a tart and fruity serviceberry shrub.

Over at Kimball House, Jeffrey Wall recently served pecan buttermilk ice cream with serviceberry confit, peaches, and a serviceberry consommé. At the time of this writing, Wall says he has 30 pounds preserved on hand and ready to use until next year.

Keep an eye out for frangipane tarts with serviceberries from Sarah O'Brien at the Little Tart Bake Shop in Grant Park.

Have you seen serviceberries (or any tasty foraged foods) on an Atlanta menu recently? Share it in the comments.