Thursday, 8 September 2016


“Take care of all your memories – for you cannot relive them.” - Bob Dylan

Prunus mahaleb, the mahaleb cherry or St Lucie cherry, is a species of cherry tree. The tree is cultivated for a spice obtained from the seeds inside the cherry stones. The seeds have a fragrant smell and have a taste comparable to bitter almonds with cherry notes. The tree is native in the Mediterranean region, Iran and parts of central Asia. It is adjudged to be native in northwestern Europe or at least it is naturalized there. It is a deciduous tree or large shrub, growing to 2–10 m tall with a trunk up to 40 cm diameter.

The bark of the tree is grey-brown, with conspicuous lenticels on young stems, and shallowly fissured on old trunks. The leaves are 1.5-5 cm long, 1-4 cm. wide, alternate, clustered at the end of alternately arranged twigs, ovate to cordate, pointed, have serrate edges, longitudinal venation and are glabrous and green. The petiole is 5-20 mm, and may or may not have two glands. The flowers are fragrant, pure white, small, 8-20 mm diameter, with an 8-15 mm pedicel; they are arranged 3-10 together on a 3-4 cm long raceme. The flower pollination is mainly by bees. The fruit is a small thin-fleshed cherry-like drupe 8–10 mm in diameter, green at first, turning red then dark purple to black when mature, with a very bitter flavour; flowering is in mid spring with the fruit ripening in mid to late summer.

Even in places where the spice from the seeds is not used, the tree is grown as an ornamental tree for its strongly fragrant flowers, throughout temperate regions of the world. A number of cultivars have been selected for their ornamental value, including ‘Albomarginata’, with variegated foliage, ‘Bommii’, a dwarf with strongly pendulous branches, ‘Globosa’, a compact dwarf clone, ‘Pendula’, with drooping branching, and ‘Xanthocarpa’ with yellow fruit.

Mahleb or Mahlepi is an aromatic spice made from the seeds of this tree’s fruit. The cherry stones are cracked to extract the seed kernel, which is about 5 mm diameter, soft and chewy on extraction. The seed kernel is ground to a powder before use. Its flavour is similar to a combination of bitter almond and cherry, and similar also to marzipan. Mahleb is used in small quantities to sharpen sweet foods and cakes.

It has been used for centuries in the Middle East and the surrounding areas as a flavouring for baked goods. Recipes calling for the fruit or seed of the “ḫalub” date back to ancient Sumer. In recent decades, it has been slowly entering mainstream cookbooks in English.

In Greece, it is called μαχλέπι (mahlepi), and is used in egg-rich yeast cakes such as New Year’s vasilopita and Easter tsoureki breads (known as cheoreg in Armenian and çörek in Turkish). In Turkey, it is used in pogača pastry and other baked goods. In the Arabic Middle East, it is used in ma’amoul pastries. In Egypt, powdered mahleb is made into a paste with honey, sesame seeds and nuts, eaten as a dessert or a snack with bread. In English, mahleb is sometimes spelled mahalab, mahlep, mahaleb, etc.

The aroma of mahleb is subtle yet distinctive and pervasive, especially when the baked goods are coming out of the oven. It is associated with festive occasions when these traditional breads and pasties are baked. Personally, having grown up in Greece and having vasilopita on New Year’s Day and tsoureki at Easter, the fragrant smell of the rich, soft sweet bread associated with these holidays is quite an unforgettable part of my childhood. A recipe for Greek tsoureki can be found here.

In the language of flowers, a sprig of flowering mahaleb cherry signifies “you are talented and erudite, but your charms are well hidden”. A single blossom indicates “good education”. Seeds of the mahaleb cherry mean: “Your secret has been discovered”.

1 comment:

  1. I've wondered about the unique flavour of greek easter bread and now I know, thanks!