Cherry on the Top
The harbingers of high summer fruits, these bittersweet crimson clusters signify a beginning to lazy days of sunshine and indulgence.
CHERRIES are a favourite fruit of mine. They arrive at the beginning of summer, when one has had more than enough of winter fruits, and bring with them the expectation of the more traditional summer fruits like melons, grapes and figs. Unconsciously, I see the deep red cherries as the forerunners of summer and of bodies burnished by the sun.
The cherry tree is a native of Europe and Asia, and cherries together with apricots, peaches and plums constitute the group so-called “stone-fruits” or drupes. The wild fruit was no doubt eaten by our prehistoric ancestors, and perhaps the fruit was also used to produce a fermented drink, very much like an erstwhile kirsch. There are two cultivated types: sweet cherries (Prunus avium) called kerassia in Greek, and sour cherries (P cerasus) called vyssina. The firm variety of cherries known as petrokerasso in Greek used to be much more available in earlier times than it is now.
Athenaeus, the ancient Greek writer, amusingly relates that the Romans claimed the ancient Greek name for the fruit, kerassos, came from the city of Cerasus on the Black Sea. The fruit was brought back by Lucius Licinius Lucullus, the Roman general and epicure, who so reined in Mithridates the Great that he obliged the famous king of Pontus to commit suicide. The same writer also informs us that the ancient Greek physician Diphilus, of Sifnos Island, described the benefits of cherries and noted that the Milesian varieties were best some two hundred years before Lucullus did.
What Athenaeus did not say is that Diphilus was, for a while, the physician of King Lysimachus, one of Alexander’s companions and successors, sovereign of Thrace and the northwest part of Asia Minor after Alexander’s death. Thus Diphilus probably had access to the cultivated fruit long before the Romans or any other mainland Greeks.
Cherries are consumed raw, tinned and frozen and they have many uses (as a visit to any Greek zaharoplasteio shows) for elaborate tarts and sweets, but also as candies, jams and so on.
The cherry tree was transported to the Americas during the first years of colonization and flourished there. Today, perhaps the best known variety of sweet American cherries is the bing cherry, and, of the sour variety, the French Montmorency cherry. But North America also had its own native cherry, a black variety known also as chokecherry (P virginiana), still used by American Indians for both food and medicine.
Cherries contain a high level of potassium, some 250 milligrams per 100 grams, vitamins A, B and C, and as their colour indicates a large variety of bioflavonoids. Thus one understands their use for medicinal purposes. In some parts of the world the powder of ground cherry stones has been used as a spice. Meanwhile the fermented juice of black cherries is distilled to make the well known kirsch. But for me, cherries essentially remain the harbinger of summertime.
Cherry and smoked turkey salad
400g smoked turkey, sliced
2 cups fresh cherries, pitted
1 mango, pared and sliced
(or 1 large nectarine)
1 kiwi fruit, sliced
1 small cabbage, shredded
Arrange turkey, cherries, mango and kiwi fruit on shredded cabbage.
Taste the fruit for sweetness and add more honey if necessary.