Most years, we’re savouring the first cherries right around now, as they normally ripen locally by the end of June. But if you’ve been frequenting the farmers’ markets, you’ve been eating cherries for weeks, since the sweet cherries, like most other seasonal produce, have come a full two weeks early.
The cherry is the fleshy stone fruit of the Prunus plant and comes in a range of sweet and sour varieties. There are over 1000 varieties of cherry but only about 10% of those are grown on a commercial scale. Most common are the sweet Bing, the sour Montmorency and the yellow-fleshed Rainier, although some Ontario farmers grow many more. If farmers’ don’t have their cherries labelled by variety at market, ask, because there are actually many varieties that are better tasting than those bland Bings.
The history of the cherry dates back to prehistoric times, and was introduced to England by Henry VIII. In North America, while wild cherries were native to the continent, the more traditional varieties we know were brought by French and English explorers and settlers. Prime cherry-growing regions include Southern Ontario, Michigan and British Columbia.
Cherries are often trotted out as one of the “superfruits” because of their high levels of anti-oxidants, with some websites claiming that sour cherry juice cures everything from gout to fibromyalgia and arthritis. I’m not sure I believe all the stories about the curative properties of cherries, after all, a lot more work needs to be done on anti-oxidants to determine how much good they really do and how much of any one item we need to eat to reap the benefits (Attention, Michigan cherry farmers and marketers – IP addresses are being logged – death threats for not believing in all the cherry hype will be forwarded to your local police department), but we can all still enjoy cherries because they taste great and are wonderfully versatile.
When purchasing fresh cherries, they should be unblemished and plump. sweet cherries should be dark and firm, while sour cherries will have more give and be lighter in colour. Avoid cherries with cuts, bruises or splits. Cherries can be stored in the fridge for 2 to 3 days; wash just before eating. To freeze, pit the cherries and and spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet, then transfer to a freezer bag. The fruit can be preserved by freezing, drying or pickling and cherries preserved in vodka or rum is a popular holiday treat.
Besides the ubiquitous (and delicious) pie, cherries are great for sauces, ice cream, cakes and even added to salads.
Spicy Cherry Soup
My favourite thing to do with sweet cherries is to stew them and then freeze the cherry soup to enjoy in winter. This is an opportunity to use up any cherries that are slightly over-ripe or too soft to eat.
2 quarts of pitted sweet cherries
1 cup sugar
the zest of 1 lemon, plus 1 Tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp cardamom
Place cherries in a heavy saucepan and just barely cover with cold water. Add sugar and bring to a boil.
When cherries are boiling, reduce to a simmer and add the cardamom, grated lemon zest, salt and the lemon juice to the pot.
Cook the cherries until tender but not mushy – this will only take about 5 minutes. Taste for flavour and adjust seasoning as necessary. Remove from heat and chill, or serve warm. Serve with dollops of whipped cream or vanilla yogurt. To freeze, split the soup into individual servings.
Tart Pickled Cherries in the French Style
From The Good Stuff Cookbook by Helen Witty (Workman Publishing)
1 pound ripe, firm, Bing, Lambert, or other sweet cherries (sour cherries may be substituted)
5 or 6 sprigs (each at lest 4 inches long) fresh tarragon
3/4 cup vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons fine, non-iodized salt
Sort the cherries, discarding any with soft spots or blemishes. Rinse and drain them. Clip the stems to 1/2 inch. Roll the cherries in a towel to remove all possible moisture.
Rinse the tarragon sprigs and pat them dry. Drop them into a dry, sterilized 1 quart canning jar. Add the cherries, which should not quite fill the jar.
Stir together in a saucepan the vinegar, sugar, and salt. Heat over medium heat to simmering, stirring, until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Cool the liquid completely.
Pour the cooled liquid over the cherries, being sure to cover them completely. Remove any bubbles, adding more liquid if necessary. Leave about 1/2 inch of headspace. Seal the jar with a sterilized two-piece canning lid according to manufacturer’s directions. Store cherries for at least a month before serving them.