Are you feeling fruity this summer? I hope so. I am. Doubles entendres aside, it is hard not to when the sun’s warmth creates that lazy, slightly hazy feeling which makes a bowl of chilled strawberries macerated in pastis seem essential to making it through a hectic afternoon dozing on the grass. Peaches, gooseberries, raspberries, apricots…take your pick as they are each coming into their prime right now. Better even than all of those are, I think, the British cherries which appear for a limited season only in the height of the summer.
Since the 1500‘s Kent has been at the heart of the English cherry harvest and happily still is today. A walk through its ‘Cherry Trail‘ of traditional & modern orchards offers cherries a-plenty for sale at farm gates as you pass by. It’s hard to resist their differing varieties, flavours and colours and little reason why you should but do be wary of where you throw the pips – if legend is to be believed of how Romans soldiers were responsible for the spread of cherry trees across the nation, anyway. How different things might have been if those Roman soldiers had had access to a cherry-pitter.
(Being Roman or on a walk are to my mind the only scenarios where you can get away with not pitting your cherries. Leaving the stones in makes for messy, inelegant, fiddly eating. Who wants that on a hot day? Especially as Sous Chef sells a very elegant pitter for £3.50 making that a no-brainer for summer spend-per-use.)
Farms, farm shops and markets are our best bet for finding the fresh, sour morellos which shops rarely sell other than preserved in jars. Among the best of those is Somerset Cider Brandy Company’s ‘Hix Fix’ of morellos in Somerset apple eau de vie. The knight whose mid-1600s cookbook advised to “eat morellos for pleasure and black cherries for health” would certainly approve. Morellos don’t come much more pleasurable than these ones in a champagne cocktail. That’s what Mark Hix does, hence the name. I like to dig a couple of the morellos out of their juices and serve with affogato. Vanilla ice-cream and coffee go astonishingly well with boozy cherries.
If you do come across some fresh sour morellos they are terrific for cooking with. Try throwing a handful in at the end of doing a duck, quail, lamb or pigeon dish so they can take on some of the meat’s juices; and then serve the cooked morellos alongside the meat for a tart, richly fruity hit.
The sweet, darkly-glossy cherries sold in the shops and supermarkets can also be very good alongside game. They will just need a little bit more depth and acidity adding to them, as in the recipe here. When hot food on a hot day seems too much, do the cherries in just the same way below and chill for serving with cold duck.
Wood pigeon with red wine & cinnamon poached cherries – serves 2
4 breasts of wood pigeon
1 tbsp olive oil
a few sprigs of thyme with the leaves pulled off
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp red wine vinegar
3/4 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp light brown or caster sugar
100ml red wine
Roll the pigeon breasts in the oil and thyme leaves. Season and set aside.
Pit the cherries and put into a small pan with the cinnamon, vinegar, lemon juice, sugar and red wine. Cook on a medium heat for 3-5 minutes depending on how ripe they are – you want the fruit softened but to hold its shape. Remove the cherries with a slotted spoon and then bubble the liquid in the pan for another 5 minutes to reduce to a syrup. Pour that over the cherries.
Heat a dry frying pan. Fry the pigeon breasts for a few minutes each side so that they are cooked but still pink in the middle. Remove to a warm place to rest.
Put the cherries and their sauce into the frying pan and stir for about half a minute on a low heat so they can take on any juices from the pigeons’ cooking. Slice the pigeon breasts on the diagonal and serve with the cherries.
Pitted sweet cherries left to sit for a couple of hours in brandy and ground cinnamon suit sweet dishes that call for some robust flavour. Done like that they make a fine fool by lightly pureeing the cherries and stirring them through a 50/50 mix of Greek yoghurt and whipped cream, then garnishing with a few mint leaves. You could layer up the macerated cherries with creme chantilly and chocolate sauce for a coupe. Or maybe heat them and use as topping for a pain perdu that is sweetly indulgent for summer tea.
Often, though, I think the very best thing to do with really good cherries is hardly anything at all. Just pit them, chill, and serve on ice cubes with torn basil leaves strewn over. What could be better on a hot day?