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A Kernel Of Truth

The kitchen is full of murky looking jars of liquid which resemble badly kept lab specimens. I peer in to one of them, shaking it a little and watching the pink filaments swim through the dark liquid. Something shifts at the bottom sending up and eddy of deep brown, sludgy looking matter. The sunlight barely makes it through the jar, just a deep, tawny coloured glow eminating faintly from the depths. These three nebulous, sultry coloured jars sit malevolently in a row by the window where they will remain for a week to cure before I tuck them away in a dark, cool cupboard for the next month or two.

I have made my cherry bounce.

I stone the cherries forlornly in front of an animated film full of talking cats and mayhem, relieved after half an hour to finally wash the fruity goo from my hands and switch the telly off. In the kitchen I open the bag of tiny, black, wrinkled sour cherries which I have bought dried from a wholefood shop and tip them in along with a slosh of hot water. Using my hands I begin to mash the cherry mix in to a gory looking slush, mildly disturbed by the sudden similarity of the sour cherries to blood clots. They remind me of a most unpleasant pheasant plucking session some years back done with very little experience and not enough human interaction.

Once each cherry half is splattered and smeared in to a foamy, pink froth I reach for the spices. Enjoying the snap of the cassia bark I throw the broken sticks in to three knock off Kilner jars. There follows four tinkling cloves in each and an ingot of nutmeg; the spoils from previous cheese sauce and spinach dousings. Finally I throw a sticky pinch of crushed cherry stones in to the jars. I have bashed the brains out of them in my otherwise uselessly enormous pestle and mortar to break the hard outer shell, revealing the bitter kernel at the centre. Satisfied with the spicing, I top the three jars with a litre and a half of cheap whiskey. A last minute decision sees a large shard of frozen blackberry juices plopped in to the third jar in which I was more miserly with the cherries.

Sitting beside my big jars of bounce is a much smaller, even less wholesome looking concoction which is an experiment really, born of my bounce research. At the bottom, in a thick, blonde layer lying on a bed of mysterious silt, are more crushed cherry pips and a couple of large, cracked nectarine stones. They are going to marinate for the next month or two, imparting a wonderful bitter almond flavour to the whiskey in which they are quietly bathing. The flavour, of course, isn’t almonds at all, it’s cyanide.

I’m preparing a poison with which to dispatch my nearest and dearest.

I’m not.

I am.

No, really, I’m not…

Maybe.

I am actually making crème de noyaux though a little irreverently. It is a French liqueur made from the crushed stones of any fruit of the prunus family; plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries, peaches, sloes and almonds, heaps of sugar and brandy. The name refers to the stone of the fruit or the ‘noyaux’ and the crème is not a dairy cream such as that in Baileys but merely signifies a sugar laced liquor. As usual, I don’t have any brandy, only vodka, gin or whiskey from a recent French supermarket run that has both bankrupted me and ensured the swift hardening of my liver in the years to come. So on this occasion, my cyanide spiked beverage will be made with whiskey which I am sure will bring a personality all of it’s own to tangle with my tastebuds.

I sense you are distracted by the mention of cyanide so let me explain. I was exaggerating a little. I admit it. The stones of prunus fruits actually contain amygdalin which is what imparts that delicious bitter marzipan flavour to the liqueur. This clever little beasty works to protect the fruits, leaves or roots of whatever plant it is present in via storage compartments. The plants keep the amygdalin in one part of the cell and in another, an enzyme which activates it. Once the cells are chewed up by a hungry herbivore, the two chemicals mix, activate and are swallowed by the unfortunate creature. Once in the stomach, the active amygdalin is hydrolyzed by the body which means that the moisture in the stomach begins another process that takes apart chemical bonds in the amygdalin and turns it in to hydrogen cyanide.

Hydrogen cyanide does not a pretty picture paint. It essentially suffocates you internally by binding to your cells and preventing them from using oxygen. Acute poisoning works fast. After a very brief period of frantic breathlessness and a seizure, your heart will likely give out and you will drop down dead. Lower doses might result, fittingly, in a bright, cherry red face, confusion and vertigo which will later progress to pulmonary edema and finally, again, a heart attack. There are antidotes available but safe to say, you’d rather not get to the point of needing them.

So now that I have filled you with horror, let me explain the method in my madness. Hydrogen cyanide is indeed fantastically poisonous at a high enough dosage. However, the amount of amygdalin within each fruit kernel , though varying from fruit to fruit, is extremely tiny. A peach stone contains at most about 9mg or 0.009g per stone so you’d need to sit down and spoon in nearly 100g of these stones to make yourself unwell. That’s quite a lot of peach stones.

Of course, there are quite a lot of fruit stones going in to my crème de noyaux but there is also a lot of alcohol, a pile of sugar and some water going in there too. So perhaps if you made 2 litres of crème de noyaux using this recipe, made entirely from peach stones and then consumed the whole lot in one go, you might make yourself unwell. With cherry stones you’d have to have at least two hundred crammed in there for any problems to arise. Combine these high numbers with the fact that you have merely lightly cracked open the stones and are thus releasing far less amygdalin than if you have ground them to a powder and consumed the lot, we can safely say that a glass or two of crème de noyaux is perfectly safe and extremely delicious.

I have a new pile of cherry, plum and nectarine stones amassing on the window sill ready to be smashed to pieces and dropped in to a bottle of vodka where they will contemplate South London from the window of my kitchen for a month or two. A slender, vanilla pod companion will join the kernels before the whole thing is  deluged with sugar and later drunk from little, thin glasses with snaps of dark chocolate or perhaps a bowl of cherry sorbey. Of course the amygdalin information I have researched does vary from source to source. Some people are blasee about it, others hysterical. Dry, scientific sites offer reassuringly large dosages whilst more colourful accounts warn of instant death after as little as two cherry pips. I’ll make sure to test the first glass on my husband.

Crème De Noyaux

50g prunus stones- cherry, nectarine, peach, plum, apricots etc

1 litre preferably brandy but you can use whiskey, vodka, gin or rum.

500g sugar – refined for a clearer taste, unrefined for caramel notes

500ml water

In a pestle and mortar or, failing that, wrapped in a teatowel and bashed with a hammer, crush the fruit pits until they shatter then leave these to steep in the alcohol for a month. Once your month is up, make a simple syrup by bringing the sugar and water gently to a simmer until the sugar has dissolved. If you would like to, add the contents of a vanilla pod and allow the syrup to cool as quickly as possible. Add the syrup to the alcohol and give it a shake to mix it well. Strain out the fruit stones and put your crème de noyaux somewhere cool and dark until it’s time to consume it.

You may prefer to make it less sweet, in which case simply reduce the syrup quantities.

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