I've been a bit on tenterhooks lately, not wanting to miss the extraordinarily brief season for sour cherries. Thankfully, I found my puckery little treasures at the Greenmarket yesterday morning. This post might otherwise have been called "Tart Cherry Tantrum".
When I was nine years old, we moved from a suburban apartment building to a suburban house on what seemed to us a princely quarter-acre of land. One of the first things my dad did once we were actually in this house was to go to a local tree nursery, where he purchased a small Montmorency cherry tree and brought it home. It was then planted by all of us with no small ceremony in our front yard.
Sour cherries have special standing in my family. They're not just a foodstuff -- they're a part of our history. When my (somewhat ancient) father was a boy, he lived on a farm (actually an anarchist school colony. No, really) where there was a Montmorency cherry tree. He said that it was his favorite hideaway, and that when the sour, sour cherries were ripe, he would climb the tree with a favorite book, perch on a comfortable limb and read, eat sour cherries and spit out the pits.
We waited several years, but eventually began to harvest a small cherry crop which grew larger with each successive year. Eventually we needed a ladder, and baskets for what we thought of as "cherry day", pickers passing their full baskets to those who would wash them, pit them and begin to cook. Sour cherries, especially these fragile, bright red Montmorencys, go bad quickly. Even by the evening of the same day they're picked, they can begin to develop brown patches. Speed is of the essence here, so we turned our ripe provender into stores for both the near and the farther future as quickly as we could.
We made pies. One year I made five of them. I wish I were still blessed with the culinary courage I had then, when I was in high school and college. People loved those pies, so I must have been doing something right. It's just that over the past several years, I've developed a pernicious fear-of-pie-crust syndrome. If you have the perfect crust recipe, let me know.
We made jam. It wouldn't jell because we only used half the amount of sugar called for, so we cooked it way down until it was a thick, luscious preserve of cherries. We liked it so much, we made it just that way every year.
We made "cold-pack" canned cherries in syrup. This was my father's baby, he who barely cooked at all, and he was extremely proud of them -- rightly so, for they were amazing on ice-cream and French toast.
And my mother made cold cherry soup, which she called Cherry Borscht. It's a cold, sweet-tart summer fruit soup in a luscious shade of pink, with whole, unpitted cherries bobbing up and down around the dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche which tops it off.
Oh to have that kind of wealth once more. I didn't really understand that it was wealth at the time, you see. We had such an abundance of cherries, and the problem was what to do with them all. Glorious indeed are gallons of cherries, free for the picking. This became even clearer yesterday at the Greenmarket, where a not-exactly-heaping, in fact not-particularly-full quart basket was going for about six bucks a pop. I thought about how many quarts I'd need just to make a few jars of jam. Unfortunately, I had to remind myself that paying the rent is important too, not just sour cherries and the site of memory.
I bought about 3 quarts, which was enough for a small pot of cherry soup, and a large sour-cherry streusel cake. They don't go very far, especially after stemming, washing, trimming and pitting. But last night I was happy in that way that happens to city dwellers when they buy and prepare food that came directly from a small, reasonably local farm. It was like the companionable feeling I had recently while shelling peas. I enjoyed pitting cherries yesterday. It put me, even if only for a moment, into an alternate life taking place on some other time strand. A choice not taken, a life not lived, at least here and now: my farmwife self, getting ready to make preserves and pies, even if what I was actually making was cold cherry soup and cake. Through the action of working with this beautiful fruit, I could actually forget about the noisy street baking right outside our doors and windows, the ofttimes unmentionable scents and noises of inner city neighborhoods in summer, and allow my cherries to take me on a journey: first back to childhood, then to this fantasy of the alternate self. Nothing like a mini-vacation, provided courtesy of the farmer's market and the fresh produce to be had there.
Tonight G and I will share the cherry borscht and streusel cake at dinner with my father and brother and sister-in-law. Our first course will be the soup of cherries and our last course the dessert of cherries. What we have in between -- well, that's going to be up to the others. But our meal will be bookended by sour cherries so much like those we once grew and harvested and pitted and preserved together as a family. And somehow my mother, who in our long-ago kitchen pitted the cherries with a hairpin, just as she'd been taught, will be present too. Thus do we mend the strands of family and memory that during hectic days seem in danger of unravelling. For us, the tartness of Montmorency cherries is imbued with that power.