Some foods are honored to carry the name of their home or supposed place of origin, such as the lima bean (Lima, Peru), the currant (Corinth, Greece) and romaine lettuce, “lattuga romana” in Latin, the lettuce of Rome.
And despite the oddities of place names such as Chicken, Alaska or Cookietown, Okla., it’s rare to find a city that itself takes its name from what could be called a “first food.” But that’s the case with the city in ancient Asia Minor that was called Cerasos, Greece (present-day Giresun in Turkey) that took its name from the fruit “kerasi” (or “kerasos”), “cherry” in Greek.
This points, of course, to the beginnings of the cherry trees that we know and eat from today, that they came from the fertile soils of temperate West Asia nearly 3,000 years ago.
The cherry is of the genus Prunus, as is the plum, apricot and peach (you easily can see the family resemblance) and is biologically a drupe, simply put a good amount of fruit flesh surrounding a stone-hard pit. Many fruits or wild foods that we call “cherries” such as the chokecherry or the cherry tomato aren’t true cherries at all. We’re not cooking them here.
However, merely to simplify both the cherry’s origins and its biology doesn’t allay its common confusion for many cooks. Sweet or sour? Best eaten fresh out of hand or cooked into a jam or pie? Must I categorically use merely the Morello cherry for Black Forest Cake? And what is a “maraschino cherry” anyway? It looks bogus.
In general, most sweet cherries eat more satisfactorily on their own, fresh or frozen and, of course, pitted (if possible). Around 900 varieties of sweet cherry (Prunus avium) grow worldwide. They aren’t entirely interchangeable to eat because each often has defining characteristics (more or less sweetness, for example, or darker or lighter juice and flesh). But, by and large, a Bing is a Rainier is a Chelan is a Santina. They’re sweet and juicy and that’s why we love eating them.
The Prunus cerasus, or sour or tart cherry, sports around 300 cultivars worldwide, of which the Morello and Montmorency are the two most appreciated in this country. Along with varying amounts of sugar or other sweetener, they make our fillings for cherry pies and tarts, jellies and jams. (In Germany and surrounding countries, they are the basis for kirsch, the liqueur.)
The Prunus cerasus is also better than the sweet cherry for savory dishes, in which the world’s cuisines excel. Pitted and dried, they adorn many a Persian dish; fresh, they are half of the terrific Persian “polow” of rice steamed with sour cherries. The Belgians love their rabbit fricassée with sour cherries and the French enjoy “cailles aux cerises” (roast quails with sour cherries).
South Dakotans whip up “wojapi,” a thick sauce of sour cherries and honey that they serve alongside any manner of grilled meat. Overall, tart cherries are delicious with many a savory preparation of pork, duck, salmon or chicken.
During cherry season, few Hungarian dinner tables go without an opening course of “meggy leves” or chilled sour cherry soup. It is a simple, straightforward and delicious recipe, perfectly suited for the summer months and eating al fresco.
About those maraschino cherries, their not-seen-in-nature scarlet hue and the Shirley Temple cocktail: They began long ago with the Marasca cherry of Croatia where they were crushed, preserved and pickled (not sweet, no sir). Nowadays, “maraschino” cherries are made from any old cherry, sweet or tart, that is pitted, brined and (get this) bleached so that they may be sweetened maximally with sugar and colored deeply with red food dye.
And plopped into Shirley Temples.
Chilled Sour Cherry Soup
From Gabrielle Langholtz, editor, “America: The Cookbook” (Phaidon, 2017). (See the cook’s note for an idea on pitting cherries, sour or sweet.) Serves 4.
- 1 pound sour cherries, pitted
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Pinch ground cloves
- 1/2 cup sugar, or more to taste
- Pinch of salt
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose (plain) flour
- 1/2 cup red wine (optional)
In a medium saucepan, combine the cherries, cinnamon, cloves, sugar, salt and 1 quart of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the sour cream and flour and whisk until smooth. Whisk a ladle of the hot liquid into the sour cream, then whisk the warmed sour cream into the soup. Add the red wine (if using).
Bring back to a simmer and cook about 5 minutes, whisking often, until the soup thickens slightly. Remove from the heat, let cool and refrigerate for at least 4 hours to chill.
Pitting cherries: If you’ve a handheld cherry pitter, good on you. But few folk pack a pitter. I experimented around (with opened paper clips, as one guide instructed; with a straw, as another did) and I found that the best way for me to pit cherries was to use a square-cut chopstick and an empty narrow-mouthed bottle. I fiddled with three bottles, plastic and glass both, and a large, empty glass San Pellegrino water bottle worked best.
One at a time, put a washed, dried, and stemmed sweet cherry on the top of the bottle, stem side up. Push through with the fat end of the chopstick; and, bingo Bing, out from the bottom of the cherry pops the pit (into the empty bottle). Repeat 1,000 times.