By my lights, almost all store-bought cherries are for people who don’t know any better — meaning people who never were children in a now-vanished patch of Pennsylvania farm country and consequently never spent mornings in early July shimmying up cherry trees. Four or five of those trees existed as spreading, easily climbable “volunteers” around the borders of our property, undoubtedly the aftermath of bird raids on local orchards 40 or 50 years earlier.
The cherries were a little bigger than large peas. There were two kinds, a dark red and a bright glowing red. Both were thin-skinned and voluptuously juicy, with a clear, sunny, faintly almond-like sweetness and an elusive almost-astringent, almost-acid undertone. They — along with mind’s-eye snapshots of myself parked in the crook of two branches, reaching up for another handful and glimpsing deep sky through a screen of green leaves — are the reason that to this day I cannot abide store-bought Bing cherries, Rainier cherries or any other big, pulpy excuse for a sweet cherry.
But there was one thing even better, and though I hadn’t the slightest botanical knowledge or curiosity, I knew that its origins must have been completely different. It came from a few dwarf trees at the south end of our property, obviously the result of design rather than accident. Every year they yielded a crop of much larger, vividly red cherries clearly belonging to another world than the ones for which I scaled trees. Grownups called them “sour cherries,” a term that didn’t make much sense to me. True, they were more sour than the climbing-tree cherries — but also sweeter, juicier, richer, more sprightly, more almondy, more winey, more everything. They were bursting with one of the first flavors I instinctively pegged as complex and interesting before I knew how to use those words. And when I also heard them called “pie cherries,” I understood why without being told.
Today I know that they must have been either Montmorency or some closely related cultivar, grafted on dwarfing rootstock. They are the reason that many decades later, come June and early July, I annually set aside my “never buy cherries” rule and troll city farmers markets and a few specialty grocery shops asking, “Do you have sour cherries?”
It pays not to be over-hopeful, because “sour” or “pie” cherries are too juicy and too fragile to be handled like the dry, thick-skinned sweet favorites that show up from the Pacific states 12 months a year. Of the growers who still bother with them, many sell only to the commercial processors responsible for cans of “pie cherries” on supermarket shelves — one of the few cases where a canned fruit delivers more honest flavor than most of the stuff passing for fresh.
In my part of the Northeast, fresh-picked sour cherries have a blink-of-an-eye season and very restricted local distribution. Nine times out of 10, my query elicits a blank stare or a “Sorry, finished last week.” The 10th time, however, pays for all. If the weather is refreshing and I’m feeling ambitious, it means a few cherry pies of divine slurpiness. But in a muggy, oppressive summer like the one we’ve been having, those pie cherries are headed straight for the soup pot.
Yes, the soup pot — though I hasten to explain, to undergo only brief cooking followed by a long stint in the refrigerator. For anybody who doesn’t already know that tart cold fruit soups are twice as refreshing as ice cream on a sweltering evening, this is a perfect year to meet the inspired Hungarian version based on sour cherries. It’s one of those dishes that call for blithe flexibility with ingredients, particularly in the balance of sugar and lemon juice. I serve it as a dessert, though in Eastern Europe it can appear as a first course.
Hungarian-Style Sour Cherry Soup (Meggyleves)
1 cup sour cream or crème fraîche
2 pounds sour cherries, preferably the clear red Montmorency type
½ to ¾ cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick (about 3 inches), broken in pieces
1 or 2 cloves or half a dozen allspice berries, lightly bruised
Half a lemon
A pinch of salt
1 to 2 tablespoons Kirschwasser (optional)
A good slug (3 to 4 tablespoons) of red wine (optional)
3 tablespoons potato starch or cornstarch, dissolved in 3 to 4 tablespoons cold water (unnecessary if using crème fraîche)
1. Have the sour cream at room temperature, for smoother mixing. Stem and pit the cherries. Wrap the pits in a cotton handkerchief or kitchen towel and whack with a hammer to crack the shells. (The infusion from the tiny kernels will reinforce the almond undertone of the fruit.)
2. Scrape the mess into a small saucepan and add 2 cups water and a ½ cup of the sugar along with the cinnamon, cloves or allspice and a 2- to 3-inch strip of lemon peel. Boil briskly until reduced by half; let cool slightly and strain through a coffee filter or very fine sieve.
3. Put the cherries and their juice in a medium saucepan. Add the strained infusion, 5 cups water, a few squeezes of lemon juice, the salt, and the optional Kirschwasser and/or wine. Bring to a boil and simmer gently until the cherries are cooked through, about 15 minutes.
4. Taste for the balance of sweet and sour; stir in more sugar or lemon juice to taste.
5. Stir a ladleful or two of the soup into the starch slurry, then whisk the mixture into the pan. Cook for a few more minutes, stirring. Remove from the heat and whisk in the sour cream. (The starch mixture, which helps keep the cream from curdling, isn’t necessary with the more stable crème fraîche.)
6. Some people insist on puréeing the soup, a step I omit because I like the (admittedly messy-looking) cooked cherries. Let cool to room temperature before chilling for at least four or five hours. Serve as cold as possible.
Photo: Sour cherries. Credit: Anne Mendelson