The Ancient Herb They Hid...Winter Cherry

Withania Somnifera, more commonly known as Ashwagandha or Winter Cherry, is an important medicinal plant that has been used for centuries, especially in Ayurvedic and indigenous medicine for more than 3,000 years. Some herbalists refer to it as Indian ginseng. But its real secret is its use in Gourmet Vegan Cheese!

Winter cherry is a plant that grows primarily in central and southern Europe, Iran, China, and Southeast Asia. The fruit and leaves are used to make medicine. People use winter cherry for arthritis, enlarged prostate (benign prostatic hyperplasia or BPH), fever, swelling, and other conditions, There is also a genus (Withania somnifera) Native to Africa, this is an ecotype with large leaves and very fast growth. Traditional usage for this plant is as a tea or tonic (dried root): (Ayurveda and Dawa za Asili): for energy and sexual ability and as a fertility tonic. The plant prefers full sun, is best in soil that is fast-draining, alkaline (pH 7.5 to 8.0) soil and dry conditions. To grow at home, sweeten regular garden soil with ground limestone. Space seedling herbs 1 foot apart–grows 2 to 3 feet tall, producing eventually the lantern-like pods enclosing the pea-sized fruits, green at first and becoming bright red as the inflated calyx dries and becomes transparent.

you can grow it as a garden annual in any zone. The plant will be an herbaceous or woody perennial in soil best suited for its growth as described previously. In some cultures traditionally the berries are used for coagulating milk in cheesemaking–as a rennet substitute.Rennet is the general name for enzymes that act on proteins in milk. It's purpose in a ruminant's stomach is to curdle milk for easier digestion, the same way it curdles shepherd's drink. Rennet serves the same purpose in cheesemaking: it triggers coagulation and as a tropical perennial can also be used as a vegetarian rennet substitute for vegan cheese-making.

Ashwagandha (Winter Cherry) extract is traditionally used as an adaptogen and to help reduce stress. Winter Cherry is actually a 100 year old secret discovered by the British who wanted to sell vegan cheese to India when it was a British colony! The following is an excerpt from a letter by Professor M. Foster, Sec. R.S.—From the 'Proceedings of the Royal Society. The Report of the Royal Gardens at Kew for 1881 contains abstracts of correspondence in which it was pointed out that, in order to introduce a cheese-making industry in India, some vegetable substitute must be found for the ordinary animal rennet, since cheese made with the latter is unsaleable among the natives.

“...the seeds of Withania Somnifera to determine whether they contain a definite ferment with the properties of ordinary rennet, and the applicability of such a ferment to cheese-making purposes. The material supplied to me consisted of an agglomerated dry mass of seed-capsules and fragments of the stalks of the plant. When crushed in a mortar the whole crumbled down into a coarse powder, in which the seeds were for the most part liberated from the capsules. I picked out the larger pieces of stalk, sifted out the finer particles, chiefly earth and fragments of the capsules, and then by a further sifting I separated the seeds from the other larger particles. The seeds appeared to be each enveloped in a coating of resinous material, presumably the dried juice of the capsules in which they had ripened.

Taking equal weights of the seeds, I extracted them for twenty-four hours with equal volumes of (i) water, (ii) 5 percent. sodium chloride, (iii) 2 percent. hydrochloric acid, (iv) 3 percent. sodium carbonate. Equal volumes of each of the above were added in an acid, alkaline, and neutral condition to equal volumes of milk, and heated in a water-bath at 38 °C. The milk was rapidly coagulated by the salt and sodic carbonate extracts, much less rapidly by the other two; of the four, the salt extract was far the most rapid in its action. All subsequent coloring-matter is scarcely soluble in either ether or alcohol, so that no advantage is gained by a preliminary treatment with these before extraction with the salt solution.

I have also tried to get rid of the color by treating the seeds as rapidly as possible with successive quantities of water before making the final extract. By using a centrifugal machine I was able to wash the seeds six or seven times with large volumes of water without their being exposed for any considerable time to the action of the water. Each portion of water was highly colored and the seeds were thus freed from adherent coloring-matter. Apart from the fact that some, though not much, ferment is thus lost, no special advantage is obtained, since the seeds are themselves colored, and even after prolonged treatment with water the final extract is always of a dark brown color. In order to obviate the disadvantages of this coloring matter, if disadvantage it is, I have found it best to prepare very concentrated active extracts of the purified seeds, so that it should only be necessary to add a very small quantity of the extract in order to coagulate the milk and obtain a colorless curd.

This I have done by grinding the dry seeds very finely in a mill and extracting them for twenty-four hours with such a volume of 5 per cent. sodium chloride solution that the mass is still fluid after the absorption of water by the fragments of the seeds as they swell up. From this mass the fluid part may be readily separated by using a centrifugal machine (such as is used in sugar refining), and it can then be easily filtered through filter-paper; without the centrifugal machine the separation of the fluid from the residue of the seeds is tedious and imperfect, 40 grams of the seeds treated as above with 150 cubic centimeters. of 5 per cent. sodium chloride solution gave an extract of which 0.25 cubic centimeter. clotted 20 cubic centime. of milk in twenty five minutes, and 0.1 cubic centimeter. clotted a similar portion of milk in one hour. When added in these proportions the curd formed is quite white.

The presence of the coloring-matter is however, perhaps on the whole unimportant, since even if a larger quantity of the ferment extract is added in order to obtain a very rapid coagulation the coloring matter is obtained chiefly in the whey, the curd being white. (It is extremely probable that some stage in the growth or ripening of the seeds of Withania might be found at which the development of coloring-matter is slight, while at the same time the ferment is present in considerable quantity.

The question of preparing an extract which should be capable of being kept for a considerable time is perhaps of importance. Ordinary commercial rennet usually contains a large amount of sodium chloride and some alcohol. One specimen I analyzed contained 19 per cent. of common salt, and 4 per cent. of alcohol. I have, therefore added to the 5 per cent. chloride extract mentioned above, enough salt to raise the percentage of this to 15 per cent., and also alcohol up to 4 per cent. The activity of the extract is not appreciably altered by this, and such a preparation corresponds very closely in activity with a commercial solution of animal rennet with which I compared it. The possibility of making extracts which may be expected to keep is thus indicated, but of course time alone will show whether the activity of the ferment is impaired to any important extent by such keeping.

I may add in conclusion that I have coagulated a considerable volume of milk with an extract such as I have described, and prepared a cheese from the curds. I have also given a portion of the extract to a professional cheese-maker who has used it as a substitute for animal rennet in the preparation of a cheese. The product thus obtained, and the statements of the person who has made the experiment for me, lead me to suppose that extracts of the seeds of Winter Cherry can be used as an adequate and successful substitute for animal rennet—Pharm. Jour. Trans., Feb. 2, 1884, p. 606.

NOTE: Nut milks were a game-changer for modern vegan cheese because they provide a lot of fat: 100 grams of cashews have 44 grams of fat, versus 6.4 grams of fat in the same amount of soybeans. This allows for richer flavor and texture that gets closer to imitating animal milk dairy.

There is evidence that Winter Cherry (ashwagandha) affects the immune system and helps reduce swelling, from both arthritis and fluid retention. One study found that a compound containing winter cherry helped relieve osteoarthritis symptoms. Winter cherry might help lower blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes and lower high cholesterol. Since winter cherry has sedative effects, it also helps ease anxiety and stress, in fact, human studies have proven this. There is some preliminary research that it may help with epilepsy and memory loss, but these results have not been studied extensively. Some lab tests of cancer cells have found that winter cherry slows down their growth. Animal studies have begun to discover if winter cherry could boost the effects of radiation therapy.