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Summer equals excitement, and a big part of that thrill in the kitchen is the first flush of ripe cherries. The luscious fruit's season is as short-lived as it is cherished and anticipated and the first box to arrive is traditionally auctioned at the Sydney Markets; this year's auction in October raised a record $55,000 for charity. Cherries are grown in the south-eastern states, with 50 per cent of national production being from Young and Orange in New South Wales - a cold winter setting the blossom and late spring and summer sun ripening the fruit. The eating season is from October to February, peaking in quality around Christmas.
Cherries have been around since pre-history, writes Jonathan Roberts inThe Origins of Fruit and Vegetables(Harper Collins), originating in the mountain valleys and upland forests of central Asia. The Romans cultivated them throughout Europe, and their interest in cherries can be seen in a wall painting depicting birds eating cherries in the 'Villa Poppaea at Oplontis', which was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. It was the Romans who introduced cherries to England, where Kent is the main producer, and from where they were taken to New England in the 18th century during the English colonisation of America. Today the US is the second-largest producer of cherries worldwide, with Germany being the first. The fruit we see on greengrocer shelves in the depths of winter is part of the US's crops. Cherries can be found growing throughout most temperate regions of the world.
Cherries are a member of the genus prunus, which includes apricots, peaches, plums and other stone fruit. There are two main cherry species: sweet cherries are often sold as just generic fresh cherries, but on occasion you can find specific varieties such as summit, sweetheart and Bing available in the Australian market; they vary in colour from light- to deep-red and almost black. The rarer Rainier 'white' cherry, another sweet variety, has a beautiful, creamy yellow skin with a red blush.
Sour cherries are more commonly grown in Europe, but there are some plantations in Australia - in Victoria and Tasmania. The most well-known sour cherry is the morello. It is typically preserved and used in cooking and for making kirsch (cherry brandy).
Today there are hundreds of varieties and many more being developed. In Australia the cherry is so highly prized that several new varieties produced by the South Australian Research and Development Institute in recent years have been named after local identities, the most famous being the Sir Don. Others include Sir Hans (Heysen, the painter), Sir Douglas (Mawson, the Antarctic explorer) and Dame Nancy (Buttfield, South Australia's first woman to serve in federal parliament).
How to buy, store...
Choose cherries that have shiny, unblemished skins, firm flesh and stems attached. Store, unwashed, in a plastic bag in the fridge for up to a week or in their box for two-plus weeks. They may be frozen for up to three months, but are best cooked after freezing.
Sweet cherries are best eaten raw as a snack, in salads or otherwise macerated in alcohol or fruit juice and sugar. They can be cooked in sauces or made into preserves. Sour cherries are best cooked and preserved for use in desserts such as black forest cake, strudels and pies.
*For pickled cherries to accompany roast venison or pork, combine red wine vinegar, white sugar, bay leaf, allspice and cloves in a saucepan, bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Place cherries in a hot sterilised jar, pour over pickling syrup, seal and store for up to 6 months.
*For chocolate marzipan cherries, melt coarsely chopped dark chocolate (70 per cent cocoa solids) in a heat-proof bowl over simmering water. Pit the cherries, roll marzipan into small balls
Apricots, bananas, berries (gooseberry, loganberry, raspberry, strawberry), cherries, currants (blackcurrant, redcurrant), lychees, melons (honeydew, rockmelon, watermelon), oranges, passionfruit, pineapples, rambutans, starfruit.
Asparagus, avocado (hass), beans (green, snake), capsicum, celery, choko, cucumber, eggplant, lettuce, onions (salad, spring), peas (green, snow, sugarsnap), radish, squash, sweetcorn, tomato, watercress, zucchini, zucchini flower.
Asian squid, Atlantic salmon, bay prawn, bigeye tuna, blue swimmer crab, goldband snapper, greenback flounder, rock lobster, Roe’s abalone, Spring Bay scallops, tiger flathead.