Saturday July 03rd 2010, 4:44 pm

freshly picked cherries in a basket

I grew up in a Lancashire mill town, in a brick built terraced house with a flag-stoned back yard. Apart from a short period when Uncle Tom and Aunty Nora owned a market garden, when I was about seven years old, I never saw first hand how fruit and vegetables grew. I can recollect a few occasions when cherries were in season and my Dad would buy a brown paper bagful from the greengrocer. Dad liked cherries. These bright polished berries were a thing of beauty. An essential part of this rarely played out ritual was to sort them into singles, joined pairs to hang over your ears like pretend fruity earings, and bunches of three or even four to balance on your head, Carmen Miranda Style. Then they were wolfed down with great delight and the stones and stalks discarded. As I’d never seen them growing on the tree I hadn’t the slightest inkling that this fruit could be British.
As I grew older I thought that France was the big cherry capital of the world as there was something about French style; cherry motifs stencilled on crockery and embroidered on cute shelf edgings that gave them assumed ownership. I’ve got an old Habitat catalogue from the 70’s which includes a feature on making cherry jam, tapping into that Elizabeth David influenced generation, when discovering all things French was the thing. It has only been relatively recently that I’ve realised we have a rich tradition of cherry growing here in the UK, albeit a dwindling one.

sweet black cherries for sale

According to Food Lovers Britain, who are behind CherryAid, a campaign to save the British Cherry, in the last 50 years Britain has lost 90% of its cherry orchards. Most of the cherries available to us are now imported. The campaign aims to encourage us to celebrate the British cherry, ask for British grown fruit where we can and plant a cherry tree, hopefully choosing an old-English variety.
A week or two ago, my rhubarb man (see my last but one blog post) gave me a big colanderful of sweet cherries from his tree. It had been a race to harvest them before the birds nabbed them all. An abundant crop is necessary to guarantee that after the birds get their fill there’s still some left for us humans. My haul meant there were handfuls to eat fresh but I wanted to preserve some as well so decided to pickle them.
I looked up ‘Cerises Au Vinaigre’ in Jane Grigsons Fruit Book, always a reliable reference book for these things, and also found ‘Spiced Cherries’ in The Perfect Pickle Book by David Mabey and David Collison. Pickling cherries is simplicity itself, you just make a sweetish, spicy vinegary syrup, pour it over the prepared fruit packed into a jar and wait for a month or two before eating. Both these recipes worked in this way, give or take a sprig of thyme here and a few juniper berries there. Easy as anything.

pickled sweet cherries

Then fellow CanJammer Leena posted her Chinese Five Spice Pickled Cherries for the June Tigress’ Can Jam, and the recipe is so simple I decided I’d give it a go instead. As is often the way with preserving, preparing the fruit can be the most time consuming part of the procedure; sorting the perfect fruit from the blemished, removing stalks and stones, topping and tailing. Readying my cherries was no exception. Years ago I’d bought my Dad a cherry pitter when he mentioned to me he was having trouble finding one and I’d bought another one for myself at the same time. I knew one day it would come in handy and twenty years later it at last had it’s first outing. You can dispense with pitting them altogether if you prefer.
So I pickled my cherries and canned them as well (just because I’m into canning), though the canning part may not be entirely necessary in this instance. You are supposed to leave the pickles to mature for at least a month but I opened a jar after only a week and they are heavenly. I’m now desperate to pickle more and stock the larder for when fresh cherries are just a vague memory of seasons past. I’m like a super sleuth on the trail for more cherries, sweet or sour. The CherryAid campaign is encouraging everyone to cook something during the British cherry season using British cherries, so do have a go at some pickled cherries. They aren’t too sweet or sour but just enough of both and even the syruppy juice is delicious drunk as a cordial. I can eat them straight from the jar but they do make a perfect pairing with goats cheese. If you have sour cherries they will have a bit more bite to work alongside stronger flavours.

pickled sweet cherries

I’m planning to plant at least one cherry tree this coming winter, now that this fruit has become my new best friend and I need my own supply.
CherryAid is holding a cherry themed FoodLovers Market in Soho, central London on Saturday 17th July (National Cherry Day).

Friday September 11th 2009, 4:55 pm

a colander full of damsons

I’m down to my last colander full of damsons. They need using up in the next day or two, otherwise they’ll be over and done with and I hate to waste any of this glorious fruit. I’ve made half a dozen jars of damson chutney, which is already pretty fantastic (if I say so myself) even without its mellowing off period of at least 6 weeks and there’s now several containers full of fruit in the freezer, cooked and stoned to use later.
I always remove the stones from damsons even though it very quickly becomes an arduous job, but it is so worth it after the event. I’ve had several evening sessions of filching these tiny stones out of the cooked fruit by hand, with the pan on my lap whilst watching tv. Here’s a tip; before you plunge your scrupulously clean hands into the pan of squidgy fruity mush, be sure you have chosen your tv channel. The other night I had to decide whether to abandon the stoning in order to get cleaned up to switch channels, or to watch Rambo. I ended up watching an hour of Rambo.

fresh damsons

I need to start some damson gin, so some of the remaining damsons are designated for that. The other day I donated some 2 year old damson gin to my neighbour Steve, to include as part of a hamper he was making up for a friend’s wedding gift. I love to make these things, then don’t get round to drinking them. The deal was that he’d replace the gin so I could start off another batch.
I never bother straining the matured gin off the fruit so wasn’t sure whether this would have had a detrimental effect on the taste. We decided we had better sample it first to be on the safe side, so the two of us stood in his kitchen, sipping and savouring, to see if it would pass muster and discussing the finer points of the flavour. It was like a heavenly nectar with just the slightest hint of almond, which was very lovely indeed. As is the way with fruit containing stones, such as apricots, peaches, cherries and plums, the kernels do have this almondy vibe, and damson stones left to steep in gin for any length of time will likewise imbue this flavour.
In Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book she includes a recipe for Plum Stone Noyeau, a flavouring to use for puddings and cakes made before the advent of almond essence. Basically you steep cracked plum kernels in eau de vie or vodka for several months. I intend to give this a go using my discarded damson stones, though bruising and cracking them with a hammer could prove a particularly dangerous occupation.

cooking damsons and plums