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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.