High summer is the peak fruiting time for the sweet cherry, Prunus avium, and although like most foods these days they’re not cheap (approximately £10 per kg/£5 per lb), I couldn’t do without the treat of cherries’ luxuriant, super-sweet juiciness during their relatively brief period of availability. They’re so delicious it’s almost sacrilege to cook them (particularly now that energy prices virtually rule out cooking anything), so usually I just pull them off their stalks and pop the red-black orbs into my gob, taking care to de-stone them with teeth and tongue before swallowing the firm flesh. I can easily work my way through a punnet in no time, the dark juice stains on fingers, chin and shirt being the tell-tale evidence that I’ve been a greedy pig. Oink!
If I’m feeling flush and visitors are coming over, I do sometimes cook with cherries. And that usually means this famous French classic from the Limousin region:
75g (3oz) plain flour
1 tsp vanilla extract
350ml (½pint) milk
40g (1½oz) caster sugar
300g (10oz) cherries, preferably stoned (rather like this writer)
15g (½oz) butter, diced
1 tbsp icing sugar
1) Put the flour, vanilla, milk, eggs and caster sugar in a large bowl and whisk to a smooth batter
2) Spread the cherries out in a lightly greased baking dish, pour in the batter and dot cubes of butter over the top
3) Bake for 25 minutes or so at 200°C/Gas 7 until the batter is golden
4) Dust the icing sugar over the top, serve lukewarm with
clotted extra-thick double cream
Clafoutis can be made using sweet cherries or sour cherries (Prunus cerasus) or a combination of the two – all variations work equally well – and options include adding a splash of liqueur to the batter (traditionally, amaretto, cassis or kirsch) and, to be really authentic, including the kernels of the stones to add an almond-like flavour. I’ve never been brave enough to use the kernels, which contain compounds that can release cyanide – a clever defence against being eaten by herbivores but largely non-toxic in the small quantities humans might ingest via puddings like clafoutis (Thinks: I must make a scrumptious, tempting, kernel-packed clafoutis for the Conservative Club’s annual summer picnic).
Prunus cerasus, also called the true cherry or the wild cherry, and its relative Prunus avium are the progenitors of all the many cherry species. Eaten since prehistoric times, they are native to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor. From there the cherry spread across Europe with the expansion of the Roman Empire, reaching the British Isles 2,000 years ago where the tree was given the Latin-influenced Celtic name ceiriosen (plural: ceirios). Newsflash! Welsh was the primary language of Prydain until the invasion of the barbarian Anglo-Saxons, beginning in the 7th century, gradually led to the development and eventual imposition of English.
The word ‘cherry’ was derived from the French of the 11th century Norman conquerors of England and wasn’t coined until the 14th century – by which time (Newsflash!) the Anglo-Norman state was waging a 400-year war to crush Cymru’s independence and right to self-determination and the plant had long since gone native, being well suited to the cool but temperate climate.
The cherry is a difficult tree to cultivate and keep alive: it has a short growing season, requires chilly springs to come out of dormancy, flower and set fruit, needs a quite specific steady but not drenching water supply, and can reach a height of 30m (100ft) so can’t be grown in most gardens. Yes, you need an orchard. A cherry orchard, in fact. The one in Russia utilised with such dazzling metaphorical power in the last play of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) would do nicely – if only those axe-men hadn’t begun their work…
Today, cherry cultivation has spread globally across the temperate latitudes. Turkey, the US and Chile are the major producers of sweet cherries and Russia, Turkey and Ukraine (pre-war) of sour cherries. Much of the harvest goes to the food industry to manufacture a huge range of sweets, cakes, soft drinks (nearly always tasting of cough mixture), liqueurs (nearly always sickly sweet), dried cherries, macerated cherries, glacé cherries and red-dyed maraschino cherries to impale with a cocktail stick in a forlorn stab at sophistication. The UK has the ideal climate for cherries and cherry trees were once a familiar sight – but, as with most things that require skill and patience and can’t be effortlessly monetised for maximum quick profits, that has all gone. In Cymru, always a little too wet and mountainous to grow the tree on a significant scale, it is down to individual horticulturalists with a bit of land to keep the cherry-red flag flying.
Oh well, I don’t suppose it matters…