"où sont les neiges d'antan? (where are the snows of yesteryear?)"
François Villon (1431- after 1463)
Now what has that quote at the top of the page got to do with Morello cherries? It's actually one of my very favourite lines of poetry and when I discovered that the poet had been imprisoned for a time in the chateau of Meung-sur-Loire where I spent my idyllic teenage French summers, I felt even more of a connection with it.
I confess there is only the tiniest link between the quote and the cherries, but let me begin at the beginning, and then ramble along until I get to those snows again.
Last night we dined with friends. Old friends in every sense of the word - we are all old now - whom we had not seen for some time. The evening was a delight because of this, and it ended with a delicious cake that featured tart morello cherries. My friend said that she had had difficulty finding morello cherries - her local Coles did not stock them and she had eventually tracked some down in a more exclusive place.
I think the brand was Tania which we agreed was probably part of a massive international food company. But no - it's actually a Melbourne family concern, founded in 1962 - an importer of foods - and there is one range that is named after the founder Harry Friedman's daughter Tania. Not really all that interesting. Other than the fact that they are not called morello cherries - just sour cherries - more of that later. I assume the cherries are imported and bottled by the company - or simply labelled.
However, I did think I had seen bottled morello cherries in Coles and indeed I have. On their website they have listed a home brand version at $3.15 and an Always Fresh brand at $5.00. Woolworths too although theirs are currently out of stock.
Or you can spend $37.00 on a mere 350g of these - half of the supermarket quantity or $63.00 for 1 kg. Mind you they are a different kind of sour cherry - griottines, French (French always costs more when it comes to food), and in a syrup that contains kirsch. So not quite the same thing at all really. Mind you, as Jane Grigson says you can make your own kirsch by soaking the cherries with sugar in vodka.
The apparent difficulty of finding any morello cherries decided me on today's topic. And just to complete what I found on availability and sources, all of those above mentioned brands come from Hungary (not the expensive French ones). We both agreed, my friend and I, that they were an Eastern European thing, so this was no surprise. However, I now find that today the largest producers of this enticing fruit are America and Turkey, so where those go I do not know. Turkey is appropriate because they originate in the area of what is now Iran and they were much loved by the Assyrians and Babylonians, then the Romans - and so on. Much loved by the Middle-Eastern peoples still today.
Which brings me to my first recipe - this one from Maggie Beer - a Morello cherry spoon sweet. However, it should be noted that this recipe requires fresh Morello cherries - even more difficult to find. Rare in themselves, and fleeting like 'ordinary cherries'. In fact I don't think I have ever seen them in the supermarket, although I did once see - and indeed buy - some at the Queen Vic Market. Or you can grow your own. Maybe my wild plums in the garden would be an appropriate substitute. It's a fine line between tiny plums and cherries really. And they are tart.
According to Wikipedia sour cherries are:
"a natural hybrid between Prunus avium and Prunus fruticosa in the Iranian Plateau or Eastern Europe where the two species come into contact. Prunus fruticosa is believed to have provided its smaller size and sour tasting fruit. The hybrids then stabilized and interbred to form a new, distinct species."
Of which there are now several varieties. The morello is the one most commonly grown commercially but there are others - Amarelle, Griottine, Kentish Red, Flemish and I think Montmorency as well. The fact that there are other varieties to the morello may explain the naming of the Tania brand as sour cherries. I'm not sure how you would know the difference from sweet cherries just by looking at them - they look much the same to me. You would have to taste them.
Besides their use in various recipes for sweet and savoury dishes - they are also often pickled, dried, made into jam, and liqueurs. Jane Grigson gives a recipe for Cherry brandy:
"You fill a clean bottle or bottling jar almost to the top with cherries. Cut their stalks down to a tiny length first, then prick them several times with a darning needle and put them into the bottle as you go. Pour in caster sugar to come about a third of the way up, then enough brandy to cover the fruit. Cork it up tightly or close the bottling jar in the usual way. Leave in a cool dark place for as many years as you can bear to, or at least until Christmas. In time, the sugar dissolves. you can help it along by giving the bottle a gentle turn from time to time."
Now who has a darning needle these days? Even an ordinary needle!
Recipes though. I found a few that might tempt you: Roast chicken with sour cherry, bacon and herb stuffing from Dominic Smith in delicious.; Sour cherry and rhubarb yeast tart from Stephanie Alexander; Sour cherry and goat's cheese zucotto from Phoebe Wood of delicious.; German cherry streusel from Brigitte Hafner; Amaretti cheesecakes with morello cherries and strawberries from Taste.com.au; Beef & sour cherry manti with tomato-chilli butter from Selin Kiazim and the most interesting looking one for me perhaps; Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh's Meringue roulade with rose and morello cherries; and finally Nigel Slater's Morello cherry cheesecake - might try that one too.
But let's not forget good old American cherry pie. It's a big thing over there and is often, it seems, made with sour cherries, and also has a latticed top. This Classic sour cherry pie with lattice crust is just one example of the genre. Even our own Curtis Stone gets in the act, although he uses sweet cherries. The trick, apparently is not to have a soggy bottom - cherries are 80% water apparently so you can see the problem.
I should also not forget Hungarian cherry soup - a cold summer soup which Jane Grigson describes as "unimaginably delicious, a wonderful refreshment" . You can find the recipe on the website called Lardy Ladies. The writer made it for the Borough Market Cookbook Club which is apparently a thing. I think the participants had to make something from The Fruit Book. Somebody apparently said it was their favourite dish of the event. So maybe give it a go, even if it doesn't sound like a good idea.
But enough of the recipes - you can find many more online. Back to those snows of yesteryear via Jane Grigson. I had almost forgotten her Fruit Book but was delighted to find one of her rambling essays on the subject of the fruit in question - in this instance cherries - in which she barely talked about the cherries themselves. Of course this was followed by lots of recipes but her introduction was a cultural exploration of cherry festivals, representations in art and literature, beginning with medieval cherry festivals:
"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:
This life, I see, is but a cherry fair.
All things pass and so must I algate"
Which is also, I suppose, the feeling behind Japanese cherry blossom festivities, when everyone goes out to picnic beneath the flowers - and reflect on the 'neiges d'antan'" Jane Grigson
It was just a passing reference but it brought the poem back to me. It's actually a reflection on the lives of various women in past French history, but it has become a well-known reflection on the fleeting nature of life itself, of time rushing by and how we 'beautify' the past as it becomes a memory. As with my recent holiday in Port Douglas for example. And yet it's a bit more complicated than that - snow might be beautiful but it's very cold and can cause a lot of damage. Maybe even to the cherries.