Sunday, August 3, 2008
The Sublime Sour Cherry
I am not a shrinking violet, as my obsession with sour cherries affirmed this year. As all cherry aficionados know, there are only a few weeks of the year when sour cherries appear at the roadside—in my case, at the fruit lady’s stand. It’s truly a window, somewhere between the end of June and mid July. One watches like a hawk, ready to pounce, for their first showing.
Except that this season they never appeared. The raspberries were there, and they were very good. But the cherries, which should have sat alongside them, were nowhere in sight. There was no reason to believe that something had happened to them—the weather was fine, the other fruit was perfect. Time to take matters into one’s own hands. This, I knew, was not for the faint of heart: the fruit-lady couple were downright peculiar about their fruit. They couldn’t quite make up their minds whether they sold it, or it was a gift, making it darn hard for those of us who just want to buy the stuff. I was once being chastised by his wife for picking up too many blueberries at one time.
I knew that if you stopped at the fruit lady’s stand at the right time of day—say around 11 o’clock—you might catch her husband, the farmer, hanging around. Literally: just sitting near an old camper trailer that they use as an outdoor fruit sorting venue, probably making sure you didn't take too much. I chose my time well, and paid him a visit. After engaging in a little local banter, I ventured, “No cherries this year?” Yes, there were cherries: just hadn’t picked them.
I turned this over in my mind for a moment, and decided it would have been a tactical error to ask why. I went for a neutral but interested, “Really?” and waited. “Why, you want some?” (Of course I want some!) “Yes,” I said. And then came the dreaded question, “How much?” “I’ll take as much as you have,” I said, trying not to sound greedy, more like I would be doing him a favor. He seemed to consider this. “A couple of quarts would be nice,” I amended. “You can pick some if you want,” he said. “Would your wife mind?” I asked, knowing her to be rather prickly—like raspberries, so not necessarily a bad thing, just a fact. He didn’t answer. He just handed me a coffee can on a string, which I put over my head; he put one on himself and headed behind the house. I followed.
He took me to a cherry tree covered with netting to keep the birds away, and lifted it to let me under. It felt a little sinful, like we were cheating on his wife: the tree was laden with perfectly ripe red fruit. We began to pick, surprisingly companionably, and it came out that the popularity of the raspberries led to neglect of cherry picking. And that this particular tree had been planted by his grandfather in the 1930s, when the state of Rhode Island had a program in which they gave away cherry trees to promote their cultivation in the state. “Used to be everyone around here had at least one cherry tree,” he said, “but now we’ve got some of the only ones.”
We dumped our pickings from that 70-year-old tree into three quart containers. He wouldn’t take more than $8.00 for them; after all, he pointed out, I’d done most of the picking. I gave a quart to my friend Anne, and made a small amount of preserves with another. With the last quart, I made the following vinegar and sweet-sour pickled cherries. The cherries have many uses, both sweet and savory. They are wonderful in drinks like the cocktail below.
Sour Cherry Vinegar and Sweet-Sour Pickled Cherries
You get two for one with this old method of treating cherries; without the vinegar, it is very similar to the way maraschino cherries are made. You can double it or triple it, if you are so lucky to have all those cherries. Sour cherry season is over, but I waited to post this until my cherries were “done” so I could show you a picture of the finished product.
1 qt perfect sour cherries
1 qt white or cider vinegar
3 cups sugar
Pit the cherries over a 3-qt glazed ceramic or glass bowl to catch the juice, tossing the cherries in as you go. Pour the vinegar over to cover. Cover with plastic or a towel and let sit on the counter for a good 24 hours. Strain off the vinegar, now a beautiful translucent red color, and bottle it. Use it in salads and sauces for duck, chicken, or meat. You can also drink it, sweetened, over ice; this is called a “shrub.”
Put the cherries back into the large bowl or a crock, layering it with the sugar. Cover and set aside in a cool place or, if it is hot and humid, in the warmest part of the refrigerator. Stir it every day for about 10 days—at least a week—then put into jars. Refrigerate or freeze these excellent cherries, which are as good over ice cream as they are as an accompaniment to meat or fish. Or use them instead of commercial maraschino cherries in whiskey sours and other cocktails for a nice surprise.
Sour Cherry Champagne Cocktail
Today is my birthday, and last night at my sister’s we made these delicious cocktails. The reputedly vegetarian dog stole three pounds of sirloin tips from the grill when we weren’t looking, leaving the hamburgers and hot dogs for us; fortunately, my sister also had a few pork tenderloins in the refrigerator. Grilled meat, champagne, and a lovely summer evening: it was a very nice birthday meal.
For each cocktail:
3 pickled sour cherries
2-3 teaspoons pickling syrup from the cherries, to taste
Place the cherries and the syrup in the bottom of the glass, and fill with chilled champagne.