A sweetheart of a fruit, cherries are frequently red, often heart-shaped, and almost always irresistible. Not that you can’t pop a berry into your mouth with the same ease — you can, absolutely. But the tangle of stems from which these summer fruits dangle makes them possibly more fun to pick up, pluck, and eat. Once in the mouth, a bite of cherry should reveal not just sweetness, but layers of flavors that ricochet about and have you reaching for another before you’ve even finished eating the first.
Cherry season, which spans six to eight weeks and is now winding down, gives you a fruit that needs only to be put into a bowl. Without fail, within a very short time nothing will remain but the stems and pips. People just seem to inhale cherries.
I recently had supper with a friend who, for dessert, filled a curvaceous glass container with deep-red cherries from which she had removed the stems. Lit by candlelight, it glowed and made a most gorgeous presentation.
It would truly be a spiritual practice to eat just one cherry, and one only, but with such utter attention that you descend clear to the bottom of its sweet-tart depths and be satisfied.
But like other fruits, cherries aren’t always compelling. Due to such variables as temperature, rain, and fruit type, too often cherries are bland and watery; maybe OK, but not sensational. Cherries like a certain amount of cold weather, and while they’re surprisingly tolerant of a range of climate conditions — they grow all over the country, after all — they thrive in the northern states, like Michigan (probably the best-known cherry-producing state), Wisconsin, and Washington.
In some cherries, the staining juice is copious; in others it’s minimal, perhaps even clear. Colors range from purplish-red to purple-black, bright “cherry” red, golden, yellow, blushed, and transparent. The Cherries of New York, one of the illustrated volumes commissioned by the state of New York in 1914 to catalog the different fruits and their characteristics, lists 1,145 named varieties of the fruit.
The dozen or more varieties of cherries that come to my New Mexico farmers’ market are always roundly sweet (sweet cherries) or tart and complex (pie cherries). No doubt, cold winters and limited water have something to do with their good flavor — that and the fact that the farmers grow some old-fashioned varieties.
The Bing, developed from the Republican cherry in 1875 and named for a Chinese workman, has dominated the cherry field long enough to have become the classic cherry, the easily recognizable favorite. It is indeed a worthy fruit — plump, sweet, juicy, and a royally dark purple-red. There’s nothing not to like about a Bing cherry. Its popularity, though, has pushed other worthy varieties to the side: cherries that are small, pale, or round rather than heart-shaped.
Here in New Mexico, for example, we start with the Early Burlats, move on to the Vans (a Bing-like cherry), and then get to the Bings themselves. Along with these mid-season fruits we see the red-and-yellow-fleshed Royal Anns, and the even prettier yellow “Spanish” cherries, as the older New Mexican farmers call them. We also see Hedelfingens, a German cherry with oval black fruits; Rainiers, a large cherry with rose-blushed flesh; and Sams, another black-fruited cherry.
Our season ends with Golds, a rather small, clear, golden cherry; it doesn’t look as if it would have much flavor, but it does. Occasionally we see a Lambert, another one of those big, dark, juicy fruits. Once, when visiting the Missoula, Montana, farmers’ market, I saw people lined up 10 deep to get their one-pound allotment of Lamberts from Flathead Lake.
These are all sweet cherries, of course, but there are also sour cherries or pie cherries. The Montmorency cherry is the one for which Michigan is especially famed. These are rounder in shape, smaller in size, bright red, very juicy, and constrictingly tart. The Morellos, a subgroup of sour cherries, are large black fruits used for making cherry preserves. A more obscure but fascinating sour cherry is the Marasca, from whose tiny fruits the liquor Maraschino is traditionally (and authentically) made.
Unlike their more durable cousins, sour cherries are thin-skinned, which gives the fruits an almost translucent, lit-from-within quality. It also makes the fruit fragile and hard to ship, which is why we don’t see pie cherries in the supermarket. Commercial crops are largely frozen, dried, or juiced on site.
A third group of cherries is a cross between the sweet and sour varieties: the Dukes or Royals. They aren’t new; such crossing has been going on in France since the 1700s. A fruit combining the hearty skins and meaty flesh of the sweet cherry with the complex but better-tempered acidity of the pie cherry seems like an ideal blend to me, but these hybrid fruits remain elusive. I’ve never seen any of the Dukes, either in a supermarket or a farmers’ market.
Finally, there’s a fourth group: wild cherries, which are intensely sharp and astringent but have enough sugar to be transformed into brandies and jellies. Chokecherries, a small blue-black fruit, are sold in the Santa Fe market. I usually make them into juice, then use it for marinating our local lamb before grilling it. It’s an excellent tenderizer and the fruity flavor is wonderful with the extremely savory lamb.
Eating cherries by the handful is one of the short-lived pleasures of summer. But cherries are also easy to incorporate into all kinds of desserts — especially anything made with chocolate. Classic cherry desserts include pies and cobblers, the French baked custard known as clafoutis, and Black Forest chocolate cake.
Cherries are also stellar with apricots, which appear towards the middle to end of the cherry season. An apricot crisp or pie that includes some cherries in it will be that much the better. And almond, a flavor inherent in the seeds of all stone fruits, is a dependably perfect flavor companion to anything made with cherries.
A few words of advice: When cooking with cherries, try to add some sour cherries to your sweet ones for their unmistakable flavor. If you tend to use more sour cherries, you might want to increase the sugar in the recipe — the cherries aren’t called “sour” for nothing. Wear an apron or an old shirt when pitting cherries, especially pie cherries, which are very juicy and splatter like crazy. If the cherries are very tiny, use your thumb or a paper clip to remove the stone.
I rather like Jane Grigson’s weary appraisal of the subject of pitting cherries. “Stoning cherries is a trying business,” she writes. “Avoid pampering your family in this respect. Half the fun of a cherry pie is putting the stones on the side of the plate, and counting them out later.”
I wonder how she felt about taking a chance with company? If the prospect of a dinner guest (or family member) cracking a tooth on an unseen stone is painful to contemplate, perhaps half the fun for you is sitting down with a friend and a glass of something, and pitting cherries together. Like shelling peas, it goes much faster than you might think.
Going from high to low — high in the trees to low on the ground — does anyone know about ground cherries and, in particular, their use in desserts? Stories are good, too! Please leave a comment below.
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