Cherry on Top
This summer, make the most of fresh cherries, which have a rich history and new reputation as an antioxidant-rich superfruit.
Bursting with vibrant flavor, cherries are as distinctive in taste as they are beautiful. Given the frilly, showy blossoms of early May and the vivid colors of the fruit itself—blushing yellow-pink, bright crimson or dark mahogany-red—it’s no wonder that cherries have long inspired artists and writers.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, Shakespeare wrote: “So we grew together, / Like to a double cherry, seeming parted, / But yet an union in partition; / Two lovely berries moulded on one stem; / So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart.” Indeed, cherries have been a symbol of goodness and the sweetness of life for many centuries.
The two main varieties of the fruit—the sweet cherry and the sour, or tart, cherry—are native to Asia and were enjoyed in China as far back as 600 B.C. as well as in ancient Greece and Rome. By the first century, cultivation of at least eight varieties of the highly prized fruit was under way in Italy, and soon after, cherries were grown in England. By the 17th century, colonists had carried the cherry to New England, where it thrived. Today, the United States is the world’s second-largest producer of both sweet and sour cherries (Germany is the first).
The two varieties have distinct uses. Fresh sweet cherries are usually eaten out of hand as dessert fruit. For most cookery, sour cherries (also called tart cherries) reign supreme. There’s no end to the diverse culinary uses for sour cherries found around the globe, from England and Iran to Germany and France. Cooked and sweetened, they become cherry-pie filling; bottled with spirits, they become cherry brandy; pickled cherries are often served with meats, and dried cherries add a tart richness to sauces, stews and myriad other dishes.
Cherries could surely be cherished for flavor alone—but recent studies have shown they possess powerful health benefits. Along with blueberries, sour cherries are among the fruits highest in antioxidants. Ongoing studies suggest that cherries may help reduce inflammation and ease the pain of arthritis, as well as reduce the risk of heart disease and bring numerous other health benefits. With the harvest for both types of cherries beginning this month, there’s no better time to put them on the table.
About 95 percent of cherries consumed in the United States are grown domestically, and the production of sweet versus tart cherries essentially splits the country down the middle—sweet cherries are grown in the West, and tart cherries are grown in our region. Here’s a quick primer on the differences between the two, along with tips for making the most of one of the first and most memorable offerings of summer fruit.
Sweet Cherries: This variety does not improve after harvest, making it one of the freshest fruits available—the journey from tree to market must be quick. They are usually found in local farmers’ markets and groceries from early June until late July or early August. Estimates put the number of sweet-cherry varieties at about 900, although domestic production, centered in Washington, Oregon and California, focuses on just a handful. Of these, the Bing cherry, named by an American grower after a Chinese orchard worker, is best-known; it has a fine, sweet flavor and rich red-black hue. Another popular type is the Rainier, a yellow cherry with a bright-red blush and extremely delicate sweetness. In general, sweet cherries lack the texture or complexity of flavor for cookery aside from a few famous exceptions, as in the case of cherry clafoutis, the delicious and traditional French cake.
Sour Cherries: Also known as tart cherries, these small, bright-red fruits are used for all types of cookery, particularly for making jams, pies and juice; once dried, they contribute a tart note to sauces and all types of recipes. There are estimated to be about 300 varieties of sour cherries. Some of the best-known include the Montmorency, a cherry of French origin now widely grown here; and the black Morello cherry, used for making the cherry-flavored spirit kirsch (the stones are left whole in processing since cherry pits release a strong, bitter-almond taste when crushed). Nearby Michigan grows the most tart cherries, producing 70 percent to 75 percent of the crop each year, but our own Keystone State is also a major grower—mainly in south-central Pennsylvania.
Buying and Storing Cherries: When buying sweet cherries, choose firm, plump, shiny fruit with green stems and avoid cherries that are soft or have brown spots. Refrigerate your cherries immediately; they should keep for several days. Avoid placing them in the sun or in any warm area, since they soften quickly. Sour cherries are mostly sold in dried form and can be purchased year-round; like fresh cherries, they are packed with high levels of antioxidants. Few growers cultivate cherry trees near the city of Pittsburgh, but one exception is Schramm Farms & Orchards in Penn Township, Westmoreland County, which also offers fresh cherry pies starting in July at its bakery (you can purchase pies made with frozen cherries there year-round). Info: 724/744-9873, schrammfarms.com.