By Jennifer Muck-Dietrich
Cherry lips; cherry on top; popped her cherry; life is like a bowl of cherries; she’s my cherry pie; that’s a cherry rig; bite of the cherry; cherry-picked…
From her delicate silken blossoms to her succulent ruby red berries, the cherry tree has been a symbol of magic and myth for thousands of years.
In Japan, the cherry or “sakura” tree represents good fortune, new beginnings, and revival. Folklore says that when the sakura spirit releases their intoxicating fragrance in the springtime, it is to be celebrated as it represents beauty and innocent pleasures. However, because it only lasts a short time, it teaches us to appreciate the short time we have to share with our loved ones.
In ancient mythology cherries contained the elixir which gave the gods their immortality. It was believed the magical Phoenix slept on a bed of cherry blossoms to give it everlasting life. Buddha was said to have been born under a holy cherry tree. The cherry tree represents fertility and femininity.
Cherries originated in the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea in Asia minor around 70BC. The English word “cherry” derives from Old Northern French cherise, referring to an ancient Greek region, Kerasous near Giresun, Turkey. Cherries were first thought to have been exported to Europe from this region, and it continues to be the top cherry producing region of the world. Romans introduced them to the Brittish Isles and then in the 1600s, colonists brought them to Brooklyn, NY (then called New Netherland) when the region was under Dutch sovereignty.
Today there are more than 1,000 cultivars of both sweet and sour cherries, but only about 20 varieties are used in commercial production. It is the fruit of plants of the genus Prunus, and is a fleshy drupe (stone fruit). Cherry trees are temperate-latitude trees that require a certain number of chilling hours in order to break dormancy, bloom, and make fruit. Because of this cold-weather requirement, no members of the genus Prunus can grow in tropical climates.
In comparing the two, sour cherries contain 20 times more vitamin A, and antioxidant levels are 5 times higher than sweet cherries. Sour cherry juice has been proven to reduce muscle pain, damage, and inflammation. It also increases muscle strength. Sour cherries are naturally high in melatonin—a hormone responsible for sleepiness. They also contain a good amount of tryptophan and anthocyanins, which improve sleep quality and duration. Sour cherry juice also reduces uric acid, which is a chemical that triggers gout, thus reducing inflammation and arthritis pain. Patients with degenerative brain disorders like Parkinsons and Alzheimers experienced improvements in verbal fluency and short- and long-term memory when consuming 16 ounces a day. It is also rich in vitamins and minerals that support the immune system and fight against cancer.
Each summer, as June comes to an end, I start to become giddy with anticipation. Black sour cherries are my weakness. I adore fat, juicy, sweet cherries that are for sale at every grocery store throughout June and July, but it is the illusive sour that has me enraptured. They ripen shortly after the sweets in this area and there are two main varieties available—Montmorency, which is bright red on the outside but has yellow flesh on the inside; and Morello, the dark red queen of cherries. Both varieties of sour cherries are thin skinned and oozing with juices so they do not travel well. Once picked, they must be processed within 24 hours or they turn to mush. Their season is fleeting, just a week or two, and they are highly perishable so you are not likely to find them fresh in supermarkets. Their bright, acidic taste makes them great for jams, cakes, pies, cocktails, and even savory dishes.
Luckily New York is one of the states that grows both sour and sweet cherries successfully. Pick Your Own is available throughout the Hudson Valley. When they are finally ready, drop everything you are doing and plan to spend a few lovely hours surrounded by people of all cultures united by one goal—to feel like a kid again and pick cherries! Expect to get sticky, and wear dark colored clothing because you are guaranteed to stain anything that comes into contact with the fruits. Bring a cooler along to carry your booty home safely, and clear your calendar for the next few hours to give you time to prepare these beauties for freezing or processing.
What to do with your treasures:
Cherry Clafoutis (kla-foo-Tee)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees
For the batter:
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 large eggs
2 Tbs granulated white sugar
3/4 cup milk (cow or other)
1 Tbs melted unsalted butter
1/2 tsp vanilla
3/4 cup fresh cherries (traditionally sweet are used, but I prefer the tart)
1 Tbs unsalted butter
1 Tbs granulated sugar
In a medium bowl, whisk flour, salt, eggs, sugar, milk, butter & vanilla. Whisk until smooth and set aside.
In a 9” cast iron or heavy ovenproof skillet, melt butter over medium heat being sure to coat all sides of the pan. Add cherries and sprinkle with sugar, then mix. Gently cook until cherries just begin to release their juices (about 2 minutes). Pour the batter over the cherries and bake at 425 for 18-20 minutes. Do not open the oven while baking or it will collapse. Serve immediately with a dusting of powdered sugar and a dollop of plain yogurt.
Easy Sour Cherry Jam
6 cups pitted, roughly chopped sour cherries (any variety will do)2-3 cups sugar, depending on your level of taste
In a heavy bottom pot, mix cherries and sugar over medium heat. Bring to a light boil and cook for about 20 minutes. The mixture will begin to thicken. You can choose to cook it longer to make a firmer jam, or leave it loose to use as a syrup. Ladle into sterilized Mason jars and process with a hot water bath, or store in the freezer. It is excellent added to plain yogurt, vanilla ice cream, poured over soft cheese, added to a vinaigrette, smeared on a sandwich, or just eaten on toast.
Pack a Mason jar with sour cherries (no need to pit them first), fill with alcohol of your choice—Vodka, borbon, whiskey, white rum, tequila. Place in refrigerator and let sit for at least 24 hours. Add to cocktails or just enjoy straight.
Visit midtownlively.org for one additional recipe: Sour Cherry Juice.
Sour Cherry Juice
I use this cold extraction method with a lot of fruits. I find it retains the color and freshness of the flavor.
Freeze 2-4 pounds of unpitted, sour Morello cherries until they are solid.
Remove from the freezer and let defrost in a non-reactive colander (plastic or stainless steel) placed over a large bowl. Cover with a tea towel to keep the fruit flies out, and let it slowly defrost. Once the cherries are completely soft, gently press with a potato masher to extract all the glorious, red juices. Be very careful because this juice will stain all light surfaces and fabrics. Wear an apron to protect your clothing.
Pour the juice directly into a pitcher, or if you want it to be clear, pour through a damp jelly bag or fine mesh cheesecloth. From this point you can lightly sweeten (or heavily, depending on your taste) with the sweetener of your choice—agave syrup or white sugar are good since they don’t change the flavor of the juice. Store in quart-size Mason jars in your refrigerator and dilute with fresh water if the flavor is too intense. Use within the week. It is delicious added to seltzer, champagne, or even as a base for a margarita. The juice freezes well and so it can be enjoyed all year.
Illustration by Joyous Garden