Helen McKerralSour Christmas cherries

Ah, that bowl of cherries on the table at Christmas time – what a quintessentially Aussie tradition, much like the bowl of prawns. Totally YUM! But growing up with Dutch Christmas traditions (pepernoten, Sinterklaas), I never really connected with the Christmas-cherry-thing until began sharing dinners with my Aussie partner’s family. And I was converted!

Both the birds and the possums leave the fruit alone

Prunus cerasus ‘Kentish’ – sour cherry

Best of all, my local Adelaide Hills is famous for its cherries and, just yesterday, I read in a national newspaper about the exceptional season our growers are having. No nasty early drought, or late hail or rain… the cherries in the local shops are the largest and most perfect I’ve ever seen.

I also understand that many organic cherry growers have struggled. Organic pesticides are extremely expensive (not just price per litre, but the frequency of application required means labour costs are also vastly higher). Unfortunately, most consumers demand superficially perfect cherries and, no matter how tasty (or tastier) they are, organic cherries that exhibit any evidence of their lusciousness to others than ourselves, are left on the shelf. So please support those growers trying hard to make a living producing organic fruit, and buy their produce! But I digress.

When we bought the land from our neighbour, one of the trees she suggested we grow on our boundary espalier fence was a sweet cherry (Prunus avium cultivars). My ‘Bing’ is in and thriving, but no fruit yet (Bing is largely self-fertile, but another neighbour has a ‘Stella’ for improved cropping). However, I planted a ‘Kentish’ sour cherry (P. cerasus) two years ago in the “old” garden, even though I wasn’t certain whether it would receive enough sun to thrive. I’d read that this small tree bears prolifically, so perhaps I’d harvest a few bowls even in less than ideal growing conditions. On the other hand, sour cherries are more tolerant of water-logging than sweet cherries and indeed require more water and nitrogen so the location in deep, rich soil near the septic soakage trench should provide plenty of both!

White spring blossom on the Kentish cherry

White spring blossom on the Kentish cherry

Well, I needn’t have worried about the crop. This spring, the tree, which is now about three metres high and an attractive rounded shape, was smothered in beautiful white blossom, even though it’s squashed between a golden philadelphus, a Tahitian lime and a camellia. It’s a glorious sight, and then the berries develop. To my amazement, for some reason the birds don’t get them – perhaps they’re too sour? – and I’ve never netted the tree, even though the nearby loquat and Nashi pears are scoured clean by the lorikeets and possums.

Nor is my tree attacked by black cherry aphids (my neighbour’s Stella was devastated by this pest); pear and cherry slugs make a few holes but not to the extent where I need to spray.
The cherries themselves are a vivid red, not as dark as Morellos or sweet cherries, and with paler flesh, and they are tart though still perfectly edible straight from the tree when completely ripe.

Beautiful rich red Kentish cherries

Beautiful vivid red Kentish cherries

However, they come into their own in cooked desserts and jams, where the sourness is perfectly balanced by the addition of sugar. They also complement rich meats such as duck –I’ve made Kylie Kwong’s delicious recipe using canned Morellos instead of Satsuma plums, so the Kentish should be fine as well.

I can harvest a whole bowlful in one day

I can harvest a whole bowlful in one day

The fruit ripens all at once – I can pick the entire tree clean in a single morning if I’m simply stripping the fruit rather than picking them with the stems – and so you need a plan of attack to deal with the harvest. Like my red and white currants, they ripen rather inconveniently in the fortnight before Christmas, which is always a horrendously busy time. Stripped fruit (without stalks) needs to be used immediately, but the last thing I want to do is spend hours making jams or pies, so I pit them and freeze them.

That sounds so simple, doesn’t it? I can tell you that pitting nine kilos of cherries individually is anything but simple, and that afterwards your kitchen will look as if you’ve slaughtered a reasonably-sized animal in it. One week later, I was still finding red splatters in unlikely places, like the ceiling cornices! Before the next harvest, I’ll definitely buy a progressive pitter of one kind or another!

Ziplock bags of pitted cherries ready to freeze

Ziplock bags of pitted cherries ready to freeze

I’d freeze my cherries whole, but I read that freezing them with the pits in can taint the flavour and in any case, it’s a job that needs to be done sometime (though I guess I could use my Mouli if I were making jelly, as I do with my currants).

So after a whole evening pitting cherries, I ended up with a dozen or so 500gram ziplock sandwich bags of fruit. I added the juice collected in the pit container (as opposed to that collected on the walls, floor, table, bench, chairs etc) and squeezed as much air out of the bags as I could. I placed them in the coldest part of my freezer, so now the only thing to do is peruse new recipes to try!

Kentish cherries are available from specialist nurseries (I bought mine from Perry’s Fruit and Nut Nursery), and they’re ideal for gardeners who lack the space for a sweet cherry, and for gardeners who love to cook.

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

8 thoughts on “Sour Christmas cherries

  1. Your cherry photo is now my desktop wallpaper. They just glow with Christmas cheer! Your description of your kitchen during cherry pitting sounds like (sorry, couldn’t resist) a scene from PULP Fiction.

  2. AliCat on said:

    Ah! A fruit tree that the birds don’t appear to like. We lose so much of our fruit to a variety of birds as I don’t like to cover the trees – I have seen too many dead birds as a result of netting.
    It is a beautiful tree in blossom and the fruit are stunning. When next in Adelaide I will have to visit Perry’s for the citrus that you mentioned with a previous post and now the Kentish cherry. I assume this cherry doesn’t need a cross for pollination?
    Alison

  3. grim on said:

    Hey what a nice thing to read on this time of cheer.
    Catherine i luv the Pulp Fiction comment,she needs to call mister pink i think.
    Bang on. Grim.

  4. helen on said:

    The Kentish cherry (also sometimes available as Kent, or Kentish Red], definitely doesn’t require a cross pollinator – yet another plus for this terrific tree. And Alison, no guarantees as to the degree to which the fruit is unattractive to birds. It could simply be that there are yummier things on offer in my garden, like loquats!

  5. helen on said:

    Hi Ambra
    That’s interesting re the cherry liqueur being almond flavoured, because one of the freezing instructions mentioned that it was important to remove the pips before freezing cherries because the former imparted an almond “taint”. But perhaps it’s all part of the appeal! I will definitely try tthat liqueuer recipe though.

    I’ve also made pickled sweet cherries – will try to find the recipe for you when I return from holidays – and I’ve preserved cumquats in both brandy and syrup (the former with sugar, vanilla pods and cinnamon, the latter with those plus cardamon pods and cloves). Both delicious. Made a modified crepe suzette recipe using the spiced cumquat preserve and it was to die for! Once again, I have the links to the recipes (found online) on my computer at home, and will post links when I get back. Ah, how I love the harvest season!

  6. Paul Urquhart on said:

    I have fond memories from my mother and grandfather chuckling over the sour cherry that my grandfather grew in London in the 30s. The tree overhung the fence where the garden bordered a field. It was a common occurrence to hear strollers oohing and aahing over the luscious cherries followed by the sound of spitting and sputtering as they attempted to savour the beautiful but sour fruits. It was not what they expected needless to say.

  7. Cherries are an early summer fruit here so I can’t imagine having them fresh for Christmas but what a treat! That is one happy tree to have produced so many cherries. 🙂

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