One of my favorite fruits are Morellos, a very tart cherry species that are used in compotes, in red wine gravies, for juices, and in Black Forest cakes. In my childhood, the arrival of tart, dark cherries marked the arrival of summer. Sitting in the top branches of a cherry tree with a book, while spitting pits into a garden below … ah, childhood summer vacation perks! Even though those were a wilder kind of cherry, much smaller and less sweet than the ones from the farmers markets.
Later, I became allergic against cherries, and whenever I eat them raw, my lower lip gets blown up as if I had met with a boxer (or rather his fist with my mouth). Belonging to the so-called stone fruits, there are about 600 cultivated varieties of the cherry, all deriving from sweet cherries and sour cherries. I read up on this because it strikes me that Washington State grows varieties that I have never heard of in Germany.
As a linguist I also wanted to know where the name “Cherry” comes from. And again, there is an interesting story behind the fruit. In ancient Greece, now part of Turkish Anatolia, there was a town called Kerasous (pronounce kah-ruh-soos), today’s Giresun. Imports by famous Roman chef Lucullus in 72 B.C. made the fruit known as cerasum in Latin, from where it underwent all kinds of changes and became Norman “cherise”. William the conqueror and his people introduced the word into the English language. Though the fruit itself made it to England only after King Henry VIII the infamous tasted it on a visit to the continent. And from there it came into the New World. We all know that pioneer Nathaniel Orr of Steilacoom introduced commercial orchards in our state, and some of his cherry trees are still in the area.
Anybody who plants a cherry tree obviously has to be patient. Especially if it is seeded from a pit. It might take four years until the first fruit grows, and it reaches full maturity only after seven years (That doesn’t mean it would stop growing …). It is wise to pick the fruit by hand so neither the tree nor the cherries are damaged. And you bet I have the most beautiful childhood memories of driving to a cherry orchard and picking cherries to my heart’s delight. I don’t think the crates we picked lasted us long enough for my mother to create any cakes or jams from them. We simply devoured the cherries, and the harvest season never seemed long enough.
Let’s not forget one of the most popular cherries with an incredibly red hue and an almost insane sweetness to their soft texture: Maraschino cherries. Those little guys accentuating cocktails and desserts as well as topping off high-fangled cakes and fancy sundaes are often the most coveted piece of the drink or dish. But there are no Maraschino trees, and you as well as I know that there goes a huge amount of processing into them. Originally, the Croatian Marasca cherry was preserved in the liqueur made from it, the Maraschino. Croatia is relatively small, and the cherry’s popularity in the 19th century grew disproportionately to its sources. So other cherry species were prepared in a similar manner. In the US people experimented with local cherries and almond extract. The prohibition took care of the rest of the alcoholic history of the Maraschino cherry. Today we are used to a fruit brined in sugar, packed in sugar syrup, artificially flavored with mostly synthetic bitter almond oil, and dyed to an almost unearthly red. I have a hunch the farmers of the Croatia of yore would turn in their graves. Nonetheless, I have those cherries whenever I am served them.
Don’t mix up the Maraschino cherry with the Amarena one. The latter has a slight, natural bitterness, and it is just preserved in sugar syrup – no dyes, no artificial flavors. If you ever have the chance to grab some Amarena cherry gelato – give this deliciousness a try!
Have you had your share of cherries this summer yet? Farmers markets and farm stands are out all over the place. Whether you have the stone fruit cooked, baked, jammed, juiced, jellied, in a cold summer fruit soup German-style or hot in a red wine gravy with your duck, beef steak, or venison, whether you eat it raw or incorporated into a dessert – cherries are little balls of summer on a stem. Cherish them as long as you can get them fresh!