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 and place in the centre of each cherry. Dip cherries in melted chocolate and place on a baking paper-lined tray in the refrigerator to set. Serve with coffee after dinner.
*For a port and cherry sauce, combine port, zested rind and juice of 1 orange and white sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer until reduced by one-third. Cut cherries in half, discard pits, place in a bowl, pour over port mixture, then cool. Serve with leg ham, meatloaf or pressed tongue.
*For a cherry trifle, place pitted cherries in a bowl, drizzle with Grand Marnier sweetened with raw sugar, and stand for 20 minutes. Layer in individual serving glasses with thick natural yoghurt, roasted slivered almonds, crushed meringue and coarsely grated chocolate.
*For a smoked duck and cherry salad, combine pitted red and white cherries, shredded smoked duck, toasted walnuts and watercress, drizzle with a dressing of vincotto and walnut oil, season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and scatter with shaved pecorino.
*For cherry tartlets, combine sheep's curd and finely grated orange rind, then spoon into prepared tartlet shells, top with halved red cherries, dress with amaretto and raw sugar. Place under a hot grill for 3 minutes or until sugar is caramelised.
*For a Champagne cocktail, purée pitted cherries with sugar syrup and rosewater to taste. Spoon a little into Champagne flutes and top with Champagne or sparkling wine.
Cherries are also great with
Almonds, berries, butter, chocolate, citrus, cream, fresh cheeses, game, rosewater, stone fruit.
If you’re craving the quintessential taste of summer, savour cherries at their juicy peak – but be quick, because the season is short ’n’ sweet.