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Christmas is ... cherries

"Oddly enough in a world where seasons of fruit and vegetables have broken down completely, where many are available much of the time, the season of cherries always seems very short. gone before we have made the most of it." Jane Grigson

Christmas never was cherries. It's not the season. What Jane Grigson wrote back in 1982 still holds today. Here in Australia, however cherries are a definitely Christmassy thing.

I confess I have always felt that Christmas in Australia is all wrong. Like Easter and Halloween it has absolutely no connection to the pagan seasonal festivals upon which it was based, In the case of Christmas:

'In ancient Rome, December 25 was a celebration of the Unconquered Sun, marking the return of longer days. It followed Saturnalia, a festival where people feasted and exchanged gifts." Encyclopedia Britannica

In Northern Europe there was Yule which was more or less the winter solstice. No cherries in winter although they do look lovely against snow and ice. Modern Australia, initially a British creation therefore brought with it British Christmas tradtions, whether pagan or Christian. Religious practice was much more common back then, and Christmas is, after all, all about the birth of Christ. Traditions are zealously maintained by migrating peoples. They connect them to their roots - to what was home. I tried to find out if the Aboriginals celebrated the solstice but didn't find anything definite. Maybe some, maybe some not, and there was no indication as to whether it was a big thing or not. But then again, even for Australia the solstice is a presage of different things - cyclones in the north, rain in Sydney, who knows what in Melbourne ...

Today, however, Australia is beginning to develop its own Christmas traditions - some of them somewhat tongue in cheek as is the Australian way - like partly dressed Santas on the beach or surfing in the waves. I sense that foodwise the menu is changing too. Less turkey, more ham, pork and prawns. It's a gentle shift, and I am beginning to make it too. Maybe those lost mince pies are the beginning. We gave up Christmas pudding and cake decades ago. Maybe time to become a 'real' Australian.

Cherries are a big part of these new traditions. Food magazines will be featuring things to do with cherries - as witness these examples - mostly from Coles and one from Woolworths: Cherry caprese-style salad; Roast chicken with cherry and prosciutto stuffing; Cherry and hazelnut blondies; Cherry icebox cake; Cherry amaretto sour;

So cherries here in Australia are a festive thing as they once were in Europe - and here I will ramble around Jane Grigson's pages about the Cherry in her Jane Grigson's Fruit Book. The book is online and her piece on cherries is just wonderful.

She begins with the cherry festivals of old - although still going it seems:

"In the Middle Ages - and until recently in some parts - the cherry fair was a great festival. People wandered about the orchards; the fruit was picked and sold; there was dancing, drinking and making love. ... The poignancy of colour and glory in lives which were normally brutish had by the thirteenth century turned the fair into a symbol of the passing moment." Jane Grigson

Interesting that she seemed to think that these festivals were disappearing because if Google Images is anything to go by, they still exist. I think it's yet another example of a revival of all things foodie, and the love of a good party. And of course in Japan cherry blossom time is a huge thing. Somewhere in her text Jane Grigson, in the context of the cherry blossom, she referred to that wonderful line of French poetry "où sont les neiges d'antan?" ("Where are the snows of yesteryear?") François Villon was the poet - imprisoned for a time in the chateau of the village in which I spent my teenage summers. Connections.

Magical - like cherries - and cherry blossom.

"The precious unkeepable cherry was the fruit of paradise, the glimpse and symbol of perfection." Jane Grigson

She also found magic in the name - and her words emphasise - so much better than I - how food opens windows into all manner of areas of human thought - from poetry, to commerce, to history, language and romance - and so much more.

"The blossom is delight. So is the name cherry, or 'cerise' in French. It carries a great deal, not just the idea of summer and love and their passing, or the thought of paradise, but the whole history of the fruit. Both come via the old French word 'cherise' and Latin 'cerasus', from 'karsu', the Accadian word used by the Assyrians and Babylonians who first cultivated the fruit." Jane Grigson

Cherries, for me, are not just associated with Christmas. They were the first fruit my younger son would eat. "Typical" we said because he was a picky eater back then and so he chose to love something fleeting and expensive. Their season is so short you have to pay the price.

However, when I think of cherries I think of this - trees laden with them throughout the French countryside. Not the French holidays of my youth - they were in high summer which was all about peaches and melons. No these are the holidays of later years in late May and June. Holidays with friends in gorgeous old houses, some with cherry trees laden with fruit of which we were invited to partake. One in particular I remember on the edge of the Dordogne had a couple of trees covered with fruit, literally bursting with goodness because of the rains - which we had missed. We gorged on them to the point of 'enough is enough'. Can you imagine? Too many cherries?

And if there was no tree in 'our' house's garden then they were out in the countryside or beside the road, ready to be sampled at will. And David in partcular did. Or bought by the wayside from small boys and their grandparents. A time of asparagus too. The cherries in the photo above were in a small village whose name I now forget in the Languedoc, hanging over a wall above the ruins of an old chateau.

Still in France there is the conclusion to one of the most memorable meals of my life. A true Elizabeth David meal, not a Michelin star or beautiful vista in sight. We had arrived in our house - I think more or less straight from Australia. We had stayed in this house before and remembered a modest but great restaurant in the next village, so we checked to see if we could dine there that night. Madame said yes, but it was very hot and so it would just be steak and chips - just fine by us.

Well - first course - home made and top class pork terrine from their own pigs. Main course - actually a butterflied and grilled to perfection, leg of lamb with those frites as promised. A green salad and a cheese platter. And then - a large glass bowl in which. on a bed of ice, sat kilos of cherries. It was perfect. Magical - and I shall remember it to my dying day, I vaguely remember that it all cost a mere €13 per head - surely not?!

Nigel Slater will tell you how:

"If cherries are perfect, I do very little to them, tipping the fruit into a bowl of water and ice cubes for 20 minutes before we eat – a process which makes their juice all the more refreshing." Nigel Slater

I've only tried it once and I just plonked them on the ice - not as good. Do what Nigel says, and if you are stuck for a Christmas dessert have go. Perfect over a heavy turkey main dish. You do need a lovely glass bowl though.

Indeed it's possible that really you shouldn't do too much with cherries anyway. And here is a small peek at perhaps how we change our tastes and our ways. Back in 1992 in his book Real Fast Food Nigel Slater said:

"I am sure that cherries, yellow - and red-tinged, are at their best eaten straight from the green-grocer's brown paper bag. I remain unconvinced that their flavour is better for the application of heat. Crumbles are better made with plums, pies with apples and blackberries, and tarts are surely the vehicles for soft scarlet fruits." Nigel Slater

However by 2018 he was saying:

"A cherry at room temperature doesn’t do it for me. I like mine hot and syrupy under a soft pastry crust, or ice-cold, so their skins tighten and their juice spurts down your shirt like blood from a deep cut." Nigel Slater

It was an introduction to these Cherry almond tarts. I guess our tastes change - or perhaps he was told to come up with something that used cherries and I have to say they look pretty good.

In the same article he had another choice - barely a recipe - Cherries, toasted almonds, goat's curd which was a slight variation on an earlier almost recipe from Real Fast Food:

"I find the best way to eat this fruit is: stone a handful of slightly sour cherries per person. Put half of the fruit in the bottom of a large wineglass. Two-thirds fill the glass with a soft fresh cheese such as a French fromage frais, then pile on the remaining frui. Toast a few flaked or shredded almonds until they smell nutty and turn light brown in colour, and sprinkle them over the top." Nigel Slater

Fromage frais - tricky - you can't get that here - they say to try yoghurt instead? His suggestion is also a variation of an almost recipe from a friend of Jane Grigson's:

"If you stone the cherries and mix them with the goat's cheese, ot perhaps half goat and half ordinary fromage frais, plus sugar to taste, it makes a delicious, somewhat lurid dessert." Jane Grigson

'Stone the cherries' - three words that present the cherry's major problem

"The stones, which take up most of the cherry, drive me quite mad." Nigel Slater

Yes you can buy a gadget that apparently works, but do you really need another gadget? Well maybe if you have a cherry tree in your garden you might. They're not very expensive but they take up room. And yes they do olives too.

You can buy pitted cherries in a jar in syrup - nice, but not the same. Ditto for frozen pitted cherries. I have to say that Nigel seems to laboriously cut them in half and removes the pit - as many do, which makes me worry that other methods that I found - a fairly nifty looking one with a paperclip for example - don't actually work.

Nevertheless, general opinion would seem to favour the chopstick and bottle approach. You find a bottle with the right size neck in which to sit your cherry comfortably. Remove the stalk and sit your cherry, stalk side up, on the bottle neck, holding it in position. Take a chopstick and push it firmly through the middle and your pip will pop out.

No pip, no mess. That's the theory anyway. I have watched a couple of videos - there are heaps - and it does look OK. I suspect you need a cherry at just the right stage of rightness - firm but not too firm. But worth trying.

Thr French, when making clafoutis, and other pastries get around the problem by leaving the pips in. But if you do that you need to tell your customers. Then they can play 'he loves me, he loves me not' or 'tinker, tailor, soldier, spy, richman, poorman, beggarman, thief' with the pips. Is that how it goes? I remember playing that game as a child. They must have been cherry pips because they were small. What on earth was it I was eating? Cherry pie? I also remember hanging two joined cherries over my ears as pretend earrings. Jane Grigson said that young lovers at those fairs would do this with the man eating the cherry from the girl's ears. Or each of them putting one of the joined cherries in their mouths, and finally stealing a kiss.

I'd have to give the prize for recipes here to Coles - well Jane Grigson had several from all over Europe, as well as wise words on cherry liqueurs, but I did find one from Ottolenghi. He's not much into cherries, although you would have thought that they were a Middle-Eastern thing. And really for his Sweet and salty cheesecake with cherries and crumble the cherries are almost an add on.

Cherries are pretty magical though and Christmassy too. Somehow, in spite of being an early summer thing they remind me of winter snow and ice. Maybe it's those French cherries on ice.

Jane Grigson has one last word on cherries. Unlike almost all other fruit she disapproves of drying them.

"Dried cherries can be bought in Greek markets sometimes. They are small and black and wizened; the stone occupies too much room. The magic has all gone, leaving nothing but a dry curranty taste." Jane Grigson

I'm guessing she wasn't keen on glacé cherries either.

My sister is doing Christmas dessert and I think cherries might be involved.

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