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Cherry amour

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In celebration of National Cherry Day, Paula McIntyre, regular Borough Market demo chef and director for Northern Ireland on the Slow Food UK board, talks about the many ways of enjoying this most delicious of seasonal gifts

When I need to completely switch off, I head to the small village of Sant’Andrea in the Frosinone region of Italy. There’s nothing much to do but sit in the sun, listen to the crickets chirping with a glass of prosecco in hand and the occasional gentle click of bocce balls in the background. On a recent visit in early June, the scene was enhanced with the arrival of fruits on the cherry tree. Yellow with a dusky pink flush, they are the rainier variety and practically dropped into our laps. The sweet, succulence accompanied by the sharp fizz of our sparkling wine was a taste memory that will always stay with me.

We picked and stoned the sweet fruit and added them to a salad of locally made, briny ricotta salata with peppery rocket leaves, a slick of oil and a dash of white balsamic vinegar. A traditional cherry granita, where fruit and sugar syrup are blended, frozen and scraped into grains, would also be a delicious way of using them. A toot of local liqueur on top, made with the harvested fruit called ratafia, would be the icing on the cake.

Cherries originated in the ancient Greek region of Giresun, located in the Black Sea region of northern Turkey, and were brought to Rome around 90BC. Their Latin name is ‘cerasum’, which is where the English word ‘cherry’ is derived from. They grow in countries where winters aren’t so severe and the summers are moderate. Henry the Eighth is said to have introduced cherries to England for his orchard in Teynham, near Sittingbourne in Kent. It seems fitting that someone known for his extravagance was responsible for bringing these rich, blood red, almost debauched berries, into the country. 

Decadent little orb
National Cherry Day is 16th July, and the perfect time to celebrate this decadent little orb. Varieties like bing, brooks, and sandra rose might sound like characters from a tacky American soap, but they’re deliciously vibrant and sophisticated. A bowl of cherries is one of the most simple, sublime things to eat, unadorned, sweet and lush. But they also lend themselves both to desserts and savoury dishes.

A cherry pie is the quintessential all-American dessert: buttery pastry encasing the fruit suspended in a sauce of its own juice and served with the obligatory dollop of cream. It became iconic thanks to the eighties drama Twin Peaks, and rightly so. Colonists from England brought them to the east coast of the US in the 17th century. I went to an American culinary school in the 1980s, a time when the flamboyant gueridon trolley was bang on trend. We cooked stoned cherries with sugar, lemon and a touch of cinnamon in a copper pan and flamed them with rum to the delight of guests. They were spooned on to ice cold ice cream. Cooking tableside has sadly gone out of fashion, which is a pity as this simple, yet spectacular dessert is a lovely way of showcasing ripe fruit.

Cherry clafoutis is a classic French dessert and an unobtrusive way of showcasing this seasonal delight. Cherries are topped with a pancake batter and baked. I like to add some star anise and orange syrup to the fruit and add a layer of crumble on top for crunch. 

Capturing their essence
Pickling cherries is a clever way of capturing and preserving their essence. Boil 250ml water with 250ml white wine vinegar, a teaspoon each of fennel and coriander seeds, and 125g caster sugar, until the sugar has dissolved. Cool and add 750g stoned cherries. Store in sterilised jars. Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Napa famously served pickled cherries with foie gras, the sweet--sourness of the preserve cutting through the rich fat. They also work with pork, duck or even an oily mackerel or herring.

Shrubs (vinegared fruit syrups that originated in the colonial US) are ideal for storing cherries for the winter months. Cover 500g cherries with 200g caster sugar and leave for 24 hours. Mash the fruit up and add 200ml balsamic vinegar and 100ml white wine vinegar. Store at room temperature for a week, then strain through muslin and bottle. Add to soda water for a refreshing drink, or use with chilled lager and lemonade for a souped-up shandy.

If life’s going to be a bowl of cherries, make sure they’re perfectly in season.

Join Paula for tips, tastings and recipes on Thursday 13th July in the Market Hall, 12:30-2pm