On Cherries

On Cherries

I first encountered really fresh cherries when I was 15 – a defining age to meet a flat of just picked sun-gorged brilliant cherries, I can tell you. On the tropical island where I grew up, cherries do not fruit – they grow, but without a cold dormancy period, they do not fruit. Papayas, mangoes, longans, cherymoyas, pineapple, yes. But cherries are an exotic expensive luxury that travels a long way to get to Reunion Island – like litchis in Virginia. So I was 15, my family was living in Provence for year, and Provence has wonderful cherries. I was hooked.

I was 18 when I first picked cherries. I was finishing my first year of college and was staying with friends in the Ile-de-France area, in the 2 week “vacations” we had before finals. Talk about cramming! My friends had a sour cherry tree in their back yard. It was June. Picking cherries was a good break from probabilities, super advance calculus, economics, philosophy and whatever else I was supposed to study (ah, yes, English!). I was hooked for ever. That’s also where and when I learned to make clafoutis.

I have been in search of cherries to pick ever since. I have dragged my husband to pick-your-own operations hours away when we lived in the Washington, DC area.  I planted a cherry tree and cherry bushes (not real cherries, but I did not know that at the time) in our suburban garden. Then we moved to the country. Bear country.Where wild cherries grow and the bear love them even more than I.

Cultivated cherries also grow, of course, in the Northern Virginia Piedmont. But it can be iffy: hot muggy weather promotes fungus and diseases, erratic winter temperatures can break the tree dormancy, late spring frost can wipe a future crop, inconsistent rainfall can make cherries tiny or burst them open. And you have to deal with bears (in addition to birds) – all of them adore cherries and can wreak havoc with or clean a cherry tree in no time. Five years ago was good year, if I recall (I went picking in a hilltop orchard). And then so, so for any or all of those just-mentioned reasons.

But this year is a good year: a consistently cold winter, a consistently mild spring (until 10 days ago), plenty of rainfall in April and early May when the cherries were fattening. No rain while they were ripening. The trees are loaded.

I am fortunate to know several lucky owners of cherry trees. I am fortunate that they invite me to pick. Since last week, I have picked almost 50 pounds of cherries, roughly half sour cherries and half sweet. Bonanza! I’ll pick them, then I’ll worry what to do with them.

Some have been pitted and in the freezer awaiting their winter fate. Some went in the freezer unpitted for preparations where I won’t need them whole: they’ll be cooked then pitted. Or maybe they’ll go in a traditional clafouti which requires unpitted cherries. I have made a batch of rather runny sour cherry jam (it’ll have its purpose), a sour cherry cake that we have been eating for breakfast for the last few days. I have made sorbet and several ice-creams – some sour, some sweet. I still have a bunch to pit! I want to make spoon cherries, and preserves, and pit some more for the freezer. And make Duck Momorentcy. See… it’s not always about dessert….

But the first thing I made was sour cherry liqueur. It’s the easiest thing to make – although I’ll have to wait until winter to drink it. Ice-cream, I’ve got to pit and puree, but then we can eat it right away.

So here is the easiest cherry recipe: Sour Cherry Liqueur

The cherries are unpitted to provide that haunting almond flavor – it resides in the pits. If you’d like something stronger, add some additional cracked pits to the concoction.

  • 1 1/2 pound stemmed but unpitted sour cherries (that’s a very heaping quart) (750 g)
  • 1 cup sugar (more if you want it sweeter) (200 g)
  • 3 cup good-quality vodka (750 ml)

Dump everything in a large enough glass-container with a tight fitting lid.

Let it sit for about 2 weeks on the counter top, shaking it every day. By the end of the 2 weeks, most of the sugar should be dissolved and the alcohol should start to turn red.

Then let it age for 6 month in a cool-ish dark place (not the fridge).

A few weeks before Christmas, when that first winter storm is raging and dumping wet snow all around, strain and filter the liqueur. Discard the cherries. The more you filter, the clearer the final liqueur will be.

Get yourself a good book. Stoke the wood stove. Pour yourself a shot in a snifter. Enjoy.

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