Summer is the best time of year for those cooks, like myself, who would rather not make desserts. Is there a better way to end a meal on a hot August night than with a platter of the finest fruits of summer?
One of the best desserts I ever set up (many years ago) was eight kinds of summer fruits piled high on a gigantic Moroccan earthenware dish usually used for the serving of a family cous-cous. A young Indian woman present, wearing a sari that was the equivalent of a European evening dress, said that in her home, someone at the table started off the eating of fresh fruit by peeling a piece for each person. She then expertly and quickly peeled a grape for everyone. And her name wasn’t Beulah.
Whenever I see cherries and apricots at the Mercat d’Olivar I know that summer has arrived, albeit unofficially. The season is a short one and I prefer to make the most of it by having them as dessert — as well as a between meals snack.
I seldom actually cook anything with cherries, although there are some marvellous recipes, including the French classic canard Montmorency, an impressive cold duck dish for summer dinners. And some people wouldn’t let the season go by without making a cherry pie…or two.
When cooking anything with cherries you will always get better results if you use the acidic kind. You can use sweet cherries for cooking, but the acidic ones give much more interesting results — even in desserts and other sweet dishes. When we cook with cherries, the recipe frequently calls for stoned ones and getting the pits out can be a bit of a chore that many people would rather avoid. Some people actually prefer their cherry pie made with whole cherries.
If you must have cherries without pits, the implement we use for destoning olives also works for cherries — unless they are of a gargantuan size. This gadget is sometimes sold as a separate item, but it is also incorporated on to the handle of the classic French garlic press.
A good way of prolonging the cherry season is to preserve some in alcohol as an after-dinner tipple, and also to make them as a pickle, to be used in salads and other dishes instead of olives.
Fruit can be preserved in brandy, gin, vodka, grappa or aguardiente, a Spanish transparent distillation from the fermented residue of grapes after they have been pressed in winemaking.
The fruit of your choice can be preserved in neat alcohol, but most people include a sugar and water syrup that produces an after-dinner drink with a touch of sweetness.
Most people have stopped preserving fruit, which is pity because the amount of work involved in minute and the pleasure one later reaps is enormous.
Cherries in brandy recipe
An easy recipe for cherries in brandy calls 1.5 kilo of cherries, 1 bottle of brandy and 250 grs of sugar. Buy cherries that are not too ripe and discard any bruised ones. It pays to get brandy in the intermediate range. The Torres 5 Solera Reserva is fragrant and smooth and ideal for preserving cherries and other fruits.
Snip the stalks with scissors so there is a tiny piece left on each cherry. Prick the washed cherries with a needle, put them into wide preserving jars, pour over the brandy and put the lid on tightly.
Leave them in the sun for six weeks, strain off the brandy and mix it into a syrup made with the sugar and four or five tablespoons of water. Pour this mixture back over the cherries, close the lids tightly, and leave in the sun for another two weeks, after which they will be ready to eat.
These cherries make an excellent after-dinner drink and nibble. Serve the brandy in small martini glasses with three cherries. The cherries are picked up with the tiny piece of stalk and eaten first and the well-flavoured brandy is sipped.
Most fruits can be preserved in this way. Soft ones such as strawberries shouldn’t be washed in water, but should be wiped with a clean damp cloth. Pears and peaches and similar fruit should be peeled.
Fruit that isn’t peeled, such as plums, should be pricked with a needle. Fruit with stones, such as apricots and peaches, should be cut in half and the stone removed.
When using brandy as the preserving alcohol, one could get away without adding syrup if the fruit is extra-sweet. But with vodka, grappa and similar dry spirits, the syrup is absolutely essential.
A friend once brought to a luncheon a jar of grapes his wife had done in aguardiente. But he didn’t know she hadn’t used a syrup. One of the group called those grapes micro hand grenades. They were rather explosive.
Once you have tried this basic recipe and realised how easy it is and how satisfying the results, you can start experimenting with the flavours of herbs and spices.
Some people like to add a little cinnamon stick to preserved pears and you could also try slices of fresh ginger. Other favoured aromatics include a few of the crushed kernels of the fruit being used, star anise (anís estrellado) or orange blossom (azahar). Dried orange or mandarin peel can also impart interesting flavours.
The aim is to be inventive and different, so don’t be afraid to try any aromatic you really like.
The last thing I need is yet another cookbook, partly because I don’t have shelf space for the hundreds I already have. But I keep coming across books that interest me and I end up buying some.
It’s even worse with recipes in magazines and newspapers: when I see one that sounds interesting, I just have to clip it, although I know I’ll never get round to trying it. I now have thousands of recipes that will never get made — at least not by me.
The other day I saw a recipe for pickled cherries that are always good for perking up the palate on hot summer days and are also delightful with roast meats in the autumn and winter.
So I cut it out and I’m passing it on. That way someone may get round to giving it a try. It could even be me. This recipe is very easy and is ideal for those who have never done pickled cherries, or pickled fruit of any kind: it’s quick and foolproof and you’ll enjoy serving it to guests who simply weren’t expecting homemade pickled cherries.
Recipe for pickled cherries
You will need 400 grs unblemished cherries, 50 mls white wine vinegar, 50 mls balsamic vinegar, 180 mls water, 30 grs sugar, tsp coriander seeds, 1 tsp black peppercorns. Wash and destalk the cherries. Bring everything except the cherries to the boil. Add the cherries with a sprig of rosemary and simmer for two minutes. Scoop out the cherries and put them into a 500 mls preserving jar and top up with the unstrained pickling liquid. Refrigerate when cool.
The cherries can be eaten next day and will keep for several weeks in the fridge.
Mason or Kilner jars are best for pickles but if you need a dozen or more they become an expensive item on your shopping list. I buy perfectly good pickling jars at the Chinese bazaars for less than €2 for the 500 mls size. They’re not as good as Mason jars but they are so much cheaper.
Elizabeth David, the undisputed best English food writer of the 20th century (and for me, of all time) has a superb recipe for pickled cherries in her Summer Cooking (1955). She calls it ‘sweet and sour cherries’ and it reads:
“For 2lb of morello cherries 1.5 pints white wine vinegar, 12 oz sugar, 12 cloves. Leave about half inch of the stalks on the cherries. Put them, unstoned, into wide-necked bottling jars. Boil the vinegar, sugar and cloves together for about 10 minutes. While still hot pour over the cherries
and seal the bottles. They will be ready in about a month.”
As far as I know, Summer Cooking is still available as a Penguin. It is full of simple interesting recipes that are ideal for a Mallorcan summer. Everyone should have a copy at this time of year.
Spain has its own kind of pickles and there has always been a good selection on sale. These pickles, called ‘encurtidos’, were once sold loose at the Mercat d’Olivar and the Santa Catalina market. About 50 years there were four big stalls at Mercat d’Olivar that specialised in olives and encurtidos.
When the European Union discouraged the sale of unpackaged goods, the specialist stalls disappeared and supermarket shelves filled with jars of olives and encurtidos.
One place at the Mercat d’Olivar still sells a few loose olives but the best outlet nowadays for loose olives and encurtidos is the big stall in front of the charcuterie section of El Corte Inglés in the Avenidas.
In the past week El Corte Inglés in Avda Jaime III has started selling a few loose olives and encurtidos at the takeaway prepared food counter before you enter the supermarket. They are ideal for making pamboli, a popular evening meal during the summer months.
Cherries were first cultivated thousands of years ago by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The word cherry comes from the Accadian kansu, via the Latin cerasus and the French cerise. The Spanish word is cereza, in Portuguese it’s cereja, for the Italians it’s ciliegia and the Germans call it Kirsche. So for once the major European languages picked a common root.
Pliny the Elder, the Roman statesman and scholar ( 23-79), wrote that the great general Lucullus brought the cherry to Italy from Asia Minor where he had gone in 74BC to fight (and beat) Mithridates the Great, king of Pontus.
Having won all his battles he returned triumphantly to Rome, bringing with him some cherry trees. However, some experts doubt Pliny’s tale or think he must have been referring to some superior strain of cherry.
Wild cherries are native to Europe and many botanists think there must have been cultivated cherries in Italy prior to 63BC.
For many cooks cherries pair better with duck than the ubiquitous orange. But when cooking cherries with duck it is absolutely essential to use the acidic kind.
One of the classic French duck dishes with cherries is canard Montmorency, named after the district north of Paris where the acidic French cherry of the same name was first developed.
Canard Montmorency is a labour-intensive dish, although worth trying for those who have the time and the inclination. But there’s a simpler version that makes a superb dish for a special summer lunch or dinner.
This recipe requires the duck to be braised with carrot, onion, garlic, bayleaf, fresh basil, the giblets, a couple of small veal bones, one wineglass of red wine and two of water.
The duck is braised very slowly for a couple of hours or until it is very tender. It is taken out of the saucepan and the contents are boiled over a high heat until reduced by half.
The resulting sauce is strained into a bowl and left to get cold, by which time it will have jellied. The sauce is reheated, the stoned cherries added, and the mixture is carefully poured over the slices of carved duck on a flattish serving dish. The cherries must not cook when added to the reheated sauce.