I don’t know if you can hear the sigh of relief in France.
There are Plenty of Cherries For All
Why? Because the cherry harvest has climbed back up to normal after several years of being short. Merci, mother nature and a return to normalcy – there were no untoward freezes, no hailstorms, nor drought to keep the cherries from forming on trees throughout the hexagon. This means we’ll have more than a month of local cherry bounty, and cherries will be put in dishes from appetizer to dessert, to celebrate the season.
Cherry Love is Nothing New
There is nothing new about cherry appreciation in France and beyond. A Roman general, Licinius Lucullus, was said to have brought the cherry to what would become Europe, from Asia Minor in 73 BCE. This is probable, as gourmands of that era didn’t hesitate to pluck the plants they found on their routes and tuck them into their saddlebags. But perhaps it was more than a mere Roman general who spread the cultivation of the cherry, for migrating birds love the fruit, and it is uncanny how their cultivation follows migratory routes. That is why cherries grow the length and breadth of Europe, with centers of production in France around Lyon down to the Mediterranean and East to the Alps, in the Basque Country and up into the Loire Valley.
King Louis XV to Napoleon
King Louis XV was addicted to the cherry and insisted his gardeners develop new varieties, and Napoleon loved the cherry so much he gave his name to a white-fleshed variety, la cerises bigarreau Napoleon.
So Many Varieties
There are more than 200 varieties of this modest, cheerful fruit, from the jewel-red sour cherry with its pronounced almond flavor, to the very sweet, deep black cherry of the Basque country that is melted into a jam served with the region’s creamy sheep’s milk cheese. And there is, too, the “pigeon heart” cherry, distinguished by its almost pointed tip which makes each look like a heart, and which is crisp to the bite. And then there is the deep red burlat, the bulk of France’s cherry production which was “invented” by a certain Leonard Burlat, a nurseryman from Lyon who was stationed near Lyon during World War I and found a promising cherry variety there. He grafted it onto an existing tree in his orchard, and thus changed cherry production in France, for the Burlat cherry is France’s major variety.
Cherry Loving Birds
The biggest worry for a cherry grower, or anyone with a cherry tree in the garden, is how to keep them away from the birds. It all has to do with timing and height. Cherry trees grow tall and if they aren’t trimmed, will become too tall to harvest, so the birds get the orbs at the top. Thus, cherry growers I know prepare by putting their ladders up against the trees so they can rush out when the fruit is right, clamber on up, and pick their harvest.
The Best Known Dish
Perhaps the best-known French cherry dish is the clafoutis, which consists of a thin, egg-rich batter poured over cherries and baked to a golden puff. But cherry use doesn’t stop there. I love to serve them with avocado as an appetizer, since the seasons overlap; they are delicious sauteed and seasoned with black pepper then served alongside grilled meats or poultry and pickled, they are terrific alongside pâté.
The Real Best Way to Eat Cherries
But really, the best way to enjoy a cherry, at least to open up the season, is to eat it out of hand. Each cherry is so generous as it cracks beneath the teeth and explodes in the mouth with juice, sugar, flavor and a respectable amount of antioxydants too.
If it’s hot outside, as it can be during this season, do as I learned to do in Italy and put cherries in a bowl, pour ice water over them, and bring them to the table as dessert. There is little so refreshing.