Cherries: Varieties, Uses, History
Gaseous storage and chemical ripening have removed the seasonality - and the taste - of many fruits. But those of the genus Prunus , such as plums, peaches and apricots have largely defied industrial subjugation. The fragile cherry in particular remains stubbornly and fleetingly seasonal, resisting even early picking. Cherry fairs, held in orchards for the sale of fruit since the Middle Ages, have been used to symbolise the shortness of life and its fleeting pleasures.
Of the more than 100 species of cherries, the sweet cherry (P. Avium ) and the sour cherry P. Cerasus are the most widely cultivated. The latter is more common in Europe and America than Australia. Varieties have proliferated over the centuries, with nearly 900 sweet and 300 sour varieties today. There are also sweet-and-sour hybrids which are known as Duke cherries.
A Brief History of Cherries
The botanical name for sweet cherries - avium - reflects the love that birds have for them (birds, in fact, the bane of cherry growers' lives). Birds have been known to drop in drunken comas after guzzling cherries fermenting on the trees in extremely hot summers.
The wild ancestors of the cultivated cherry tree species, believed to have originated in western Asia and eastern Europe before agricultural history was recorded. The Oxford English Dictionary notes: "The fact that there is no native name in Celtic or Teutonic confirms the opinion of botanists that the tree is not indigenous to Britain or western Europe."
The word "cherry" developed in the 14th century from the old northern French word cherise, which came from the Akkadian karsu. Cherise was mistaken as being plural, resulting in the coining of the modern singular with the second "r" added in the late 1900s.
Cherries were being grown throughout Mediterranean lands in antiquity, with the first recorded cultivation dating back to 8 BC in Assyria. The Roman writer Pliny attributed the introduction of cherries into Italy by the Roamn general and epicure Lucullus. In fact, the fruit had been cultivated in Italy by the Etruscans before Lucullus' time. Pliny's spurious attribution, repeated recently in James Trager's The Food Chronology, has caused centuries of debate. However, what Lucullus may have done was introduce a superior variety from his conquest of Pontus which included the city of Cerasus. Nonetheless, Pliny and his countrymen did improve the then existing cherry varieties.
Commercial cherry growing in Australia was pioneered by Nicole Jasprizza, a native of Austria. He arrived in Young, NSW, in 1860 seeking gold but soon turned to fruit and vegetable growing. Kentish cherries had been planted in the district around 1847 by Edward Taylor in his home orchard. In 1878, Jasprizza planted cherry trees using Taylor's stocks and by the 1890s was producing several varieties.
Young rapidly became, and remains, the cherry capital of Australia. Jasprizza's descendants are still growing cherries there.
Sweet cherries are the ones that is one of joys of summer fresh fruit. There are over 900 cultivated varieties including the so called "white" cherry which is actually light red and yellow in coloration.
The old proverbs about the dangers of competing against the powerful and rich are variations on a cherry eating theme:
"Mean men are not to eat cherries...with great lords, let the stones of the best flie faster at their eyes.....the worst into their mouths. " Randle Cotgrave (1611)
"As for the outlandish proverb, "he that eateth cherries with noblemen shall have his eyes squirted out with the stones", it fixeth no fault in the fruit ". Fuller, Worthies of England ii.112 (1662)
"Eat peas with the king and cherries with the beggar... " James Kelly, Scottish proverbs p.100 (1721)
The sweet juicy flesh of this fruit needs little embellishment. However, if you want something a little more glamorous, use them fresh as a filling in a buttery tart shell lined with cherry jam. You could also pit and cook them briefly and use the pureed flesh in ice cream.
When it comes to cooking, the sour cherry wins hands down as it develops a greater depth of flavour than the sweet cherry varieties and its fruity acidity is a beautiful counterpoint to other rich and/or sweet ingredients in the cooked dish.
Sour cherries require a colder climate than sweet varieties. In Australia, they are largely grown in Tasmania and Victoria. Montmorency and morello are the two main varieties planted. The medium-sized, bright red Montmorency is mildly tart, while the darker, smaller morello can be almost puckering-ly tart. They come into season a little later than the sweet varieties.
How to Freeze Sour Cherries
Sour cherries freeze beautifully. The bottled and canned products in supermarkets pale in comparison to the frozen. Stock up on sour cherries when they are in season and banish winter chills with a taste of summer. Do not wash the fruit before freezing. Just pack them into plastic food bags (about 1 kg per bag). Vacuum seal the bags if possible (to reduce freezer burn). When you want to use them, take them out the night before and place them in the refrigerator. They are easier to pit when semi-frozen.
Ideas for Using Sour Cherries
Chilled sour cherry soups are common in northern European cuisine. Pickled sour cherries are a lovely accompaniment to any charcuterie plate. Duck with sour cherry sauce is a marriage made in heaven. There are a whole range of sour cherry sauces to choose from: English, Russian, French etc. They work well with ham, offal such as brains, tongue and sweetbreads, and game such as quail, guineafowl, venison and hare.
In the dessert department, there are cherry tarts, pies and strudels. Cherry clafoutis, a flat batter cake dotted with plump cherries, is a French classic. Cherry dumplings feature in Central and Eastern European cuisines.
Black morellos are considered the ultimate variety for jam and Black Forest Cake. There's something very special about the combination of cherry with chocolate.
One of my favourite winter desserts is what I call a steamed black forest pudding: place a generous amount of cherry jam in the base of a pudding bowl, fill with chocolate pudding mixture, seal and steam. Turn out and serve with hot chocolate sauce and cream.
Dried Sour Cherries
Equally stunning are dried sour cherries, particularly morellos. They make sensational muffins, cookies, cakes and ice-creams.
If you have a dehydrator, make your own dried sour cherries. (Note: don't do this with sweet cherries. These turn out quite bland.) But be prepared to pit at least 5 kg to make it worth the effort as there is tremendous amount of shrinkage in the drying process. A bulk cherry pitter is useful for doing this. You'll need to keep the dehydrator running for at least 2 days but you'll have enough to last you a long time. They keep very well if stored in air-tight container in dry cool place.
Recipe: SOUR CHERRY & ALMOND CAKE
This is one of my favourite cakes which I make with either fresh or frozen sour cherries. If you are using frozen cherries, pit them and leave them in a colander set over a large bowl to drain completely. You can use canned sour cherries.
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups plain flour, sifted
½ cup tightly packed almond meal
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp baking powder
200ml sour cream
1 tsp lemon juice
Approx 300 - 400g (pitted weight) cherries, strained
Approx 150 g flaked almonds*
¾ cup icing sugar
½ tsp vanilla
2 tbsp hot water
- Preheat oven to 180°C. Butter and flour 22cm cake tin.
- Cream butter and sugar until very pale and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, making sure you beat each egg in very thoroughly before adding the next.
- Combine dry ingredients and fold dry ingredients into egg mixture, alternating with sour cream and lemon juice.
- Pour half the batter into cake tin, add the cherries. Top with the rest of the batter. Scatter a thick layer of flaked almonds over the top.
- Bake for 1 ½ hours or until cooked (it can take up to 2 hours). Cool cake before removing from tin.
- To make topping, mix all ingredients together and pour over cake, allowing it to drip over the edges. Serve with thick cream.
*For maximum crunchiness, dry the flaked almonds out before using. Spread them on a large tray and put them into the oven when you are preheating the oven to bake the cake. Keep an eye on the almonds to ensure they don't brown. You don't want them to colour at this stage - only to dry them out.
Sour Cherry Chocolate Cake
This cake uses dried sour cherries which provide a good counterbalance to the richness of chocolate. It is best made a day ahead and it freezes very well. Use the best quality dark chocolate you can get. I use either Callebaut or Valrhona coverture.
125g dried sour cherries
60 ml kirsch or brandy
350g best quality dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces
100g unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
6 x 60g eggs, separated
100g caster sugar (for beating with egg yolks)
80g caster sugar (for beating with egg whites)
45g Dutch process cocoa, sifted
- Combine the dried sour cherries with the kirsch or brandy and leave to macerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.
- Grease and line a 26-cm round cake pan with baking paper.
- Place the chocolate and butter in a metal bowl. Set the bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water and melt the chocolate and butter, stirring occasionally. When melted, remove from the bowl from the saucepan and set aside.
- In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the 100g caster sugar with the egg yolks until the mixture is thick, light and fluffy.
- Remove the whisk attachment and fit the paddle beater to the mixer. Beat the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture until well-combined.
- Using a spatula, fold the cocoa into the mixture.
- Pour the egg whites into a clean mixing bowl. Fit the clean dry whisk attachment to the mixer and beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Gradually add the 80g sugar and continue beating until the meringue mixture just holds stiff peaks.
- Gently stir about a quarter of the meringue mixture into the chocolate mixture to loosen it. Then fold in the rest of the meringue mixture gently but thoroughly.
- Fold in the macerated dried sour cherries together with any remaining kirsch or cognac.
- Transfer the mixture to the prepared cake pan. Smooth the top.
- Bake the cake in a preheated 180°C oven for about 40 minutes or until the centre is just set.
- Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes. Then turn the cake out onto a rack to cool completely.
- Just before serving, sift some cocoa over the cake. Creme fraiche is a good accompaniment as the slight tartness helps balance the richness of chocolate.