Such is their magnificence, cherries were celebrated in the Middle Ages – and still are in some parts of England – with great festivals, where the precious fruits were picked amid much feasting and dancing.
A member of the Rosaceae family, whose kin includes apples, pears, almonds, peaches, apricots, plums and – of course – roses, it’s no surprise that cherries are considered the fruit of paradise.
Generally speaking, there are two types of cherries, sweet and sour, and their season always seems heartbreakingly short. (As food writer Jane Grigson aptly puts it in her marvellous Fruit Book, the season is “gone before we have made the most of it”.) So, what to do with these gleaming fruits that range in colour from obsidian to white? Apart from flirtatiously hanging them from your ears?
In many ways, it seems a shame to cook the sweet and juicy varieties. Where possible, enjoy them by the bagful while sitting in the sun until your lips and teeth turn crimson. Perhaps spit the seeds straight into your garden where, if luck will have it, you’ll grow your own personal cherry supply. (Be patient: this will take more than a decade.)
Removing their stones is a bother, admittedly, but cherries are terrific in salads, providing a pop of sweetness along with some spicy floral notes.Cherries pair beautifully with goat’s cheese – particularly the fresh, grassy, chalky varieties – and also labneh (yoghurt cheese). Arrange young salad leaves that you have slicked in hazelnut vinaigrette, and scatter over knobs of either of the cheeses and some fresh deseeded cherries. Served alongside sliced barbecued lamb or smoked duck – cherries are always tasty partners with both – the salad makes a perfect summer feast.
Fresh cherries can also be pickled to freeze-frame their deliciousness. For every 500g cherries, make a pickling mixture with 200ml white wine or cider vinegar, 200ml water and 115g sugar plus aromatics such juniper berries, lemon peel and cinnamon stick. Slowly bring to the boil and bubble away for 5 minutes. Place the cherries into sterilised jars, then pour over the strained pickling liquid, ensuring the fruit is completely covered. Leave for two weeks before using, or store in a cool dry place for up to a year. Delicious served with cold smoked meats.
Cooked cherries are utterly delicious, too, of course.Their almond-scented stone imparts wonderful flavour when left in. For this reason, in some parts of France, cooks do not remove the seeds when making the wobbly custard-based pudding, cherry clafoutis. If you prefer to serve cherry clafoutis without the worry of cracked teeth – yours or your guests – simply remove the stones and replace their flavour with a splash of almond extract. Equally good to showcase the tasty almond-cherry pairing is a frangipane tart: gently push deseeded cherries into the batter before baking.
Cherry and chocolate are unbeatable together, as showcased in that popular 1970s confection Black Forest gateau. This traditionally uses sour morello cherries grown in the orchards of Germany’s Black Forest. But if a complex sponge confection is too much faff in the summer – and this would be a perfectly reasonable opinion – serve a plate of fresh cherries alongside some good quality dark chocolate for a winning and effortless pudding. Almost as simple is a no-churn cherry ice cream: freeze deseeded cherries and blitz in a blender with some crème fraiche and a little honey – if needed – to taste. Eat immediately in soft-serve form or transfer to the freeze for a firmer iced treat.
Stewed sour cherries (turned into chutney, relish or a simple sauce) are a wonderful foil to roast game birds, venison and lamb. Serve as a condiment with the main course or spread on a sandwich made with cold leftovers later.
Cherry jam and compote (both sweet and sour cherries can be used this way) will give you cherry joy throughout the year, so long as the prospect of removing all the stones does not deter you. Add flavourings if you like: a touch or rosewater, some basil leaves or stone fruits peaches, apricots and plums to the mix. To my mind, the stunning contrast of stewed cherries against snow-white yoghurt is, in itself, worth the effort. Jam – made as tart or sweet as you fancy – can be used in array of cakes and traybakes to add a shot of summer to afternoon tea when the temperature has dropped, and fresh cherries are just a sweet memory.
Perfect pairings: goat’s cheese; almonds; game meat and lamb; basil; chocolate; coffee; walnuts; hazelnuts; peach, plum and apricot.
Nutrition: cherries are a good source of fibre and vitamin C.They’re also high in anthocyanin, the compound that imparts their dark red shade and is also a powerful antioxidant that protects cells against damage.
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