Cherries are now in season, one of the first fruits to appear after this long and snowy winter in Beijing. The bright magenta red cherries and the golden yellow skin are as beautiful and alluring as glossy adverts for nail polish and lipstick in the pages of fashion magazines. The sea of cherries on vendors' carts on the streets of Beijing remind me of my visit to Pike Street market in Seattle several years ago. It was early summer and the market was loaded with Bing cherries, the most popular sweet variety.
This variety of cherry was developed at the Lewelling Nursery in Salem, Oregon, which was known as the Cherry City because of its fine display of cherries at their annual Cherry Fair. I was surprised to read that the Bing cherry was named after a Chinese helper who worked at the nursery.
A woman picks cherries in an orchard in suburban Beijing. Zhang Kaixin / for China Daily
The cherry is native to the Black Sea area, but the ancient Chinese are said to have been the first to cultivate cherry trees. The fruit was perfected by the Greeks and Romans, who planted cherry trees across Europe.
The Romans planted cherry trees as a staple for the Roman armies, but the Japanese grew them purely for their beautiful blossoms. It was said that a fifth century Japanese emperor drank his sake under a cherry tree every day. Today, people from around the world visit Japan during springtime to take pictures of the blossoming cherry orchards.
All over Beijing these days, the fruit peddlers' carts are piled high with mountains of cherries, some vendors taking time to bunch them together in a sort of bouquet.
This is the best time to get your dose of fresh cherries as the supply is plentiful and the prices are good. Cherries are selling for between 8 yuan to 15 yuan per jin (1 jin equals 500 g) depending on the size.
Cherries are grown around the Beijing area, in Yantai, Shandong province and Chongqing. The type of cherries we have here are not like the sweet juicy cherries in the United States, but are tart like amarelle-type cherries, with a yellow flesh and clear juice.
The morello, sometimes also available in China, is another type of red-fleshed sour cherry with red juice. Both are perfect for baking or cooking to make a delicious syrup.
The latter is wonderful preserved in sugar and vodka and stored in a jar to make kirsch, a cherry liquor used for making the classic Black Forest cake.
Recipe | Cherry pie
(combine the following ingredients and let stand for 15 minutes)
3 cups of cherries, washed, pitted and cut in half
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
a squeeze of one slice of lemon
2 tablespoons cassava starch or cornstarch
Single crust pie:
1 cup all-purpose flour
a pinch of salt
1/4 cup butter, room temperature
3 to 6 tablespoons cold water
1. Mix the flour, salt, butter and cold water and work until the mixture is smooth and does not stick to your hand.
2. Divide the dough into two portions. Roll out half of the dough and line your pie dish with it.
3. Place the cherry filling into your pie dish.
4. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the other half of the pie dough. Cut the dough into 1.5-cm-wide strips. Alternate horizontal and vertical strips, weaving them in an over-and-under pattern to form a lattice pie crust. Use the shortest strips for the edges of the lattice.
5. Once the pie has been covered with the lattice, brush the top with milk for a golden brown crust.
6. Preheat your oven to 200 degrees C. Bake for 50 minutes or until it's bubbly.
Recipe | Cherry syrup and compote
1,000 g cherries, washed and pitted
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Put everything in a pot, bring to a boil and then reduce the flame and simmer to a thick consistency. Strain the cherries and reserve them to top pancake or ice cream, and store the syrup in a jar and keep refrigerated.
You can eat pancakes with cherry syrup instead of the usual maple syrup and zest up vanilla ice cream with a sweet-and-tart flavor.
Recipe | Kirsch
1,000 g cherries, washed and pitted
500 g granulated sugar
21/2 cups vodka
1. Place a layer of the pitted cherries in a wide open-mouth glass jar with a lid and cover with a layer of granulated sugar. Repeat the process until you have used all the cherries and granulated sugar. Put the lid on the jar and keep overnight in the refrigerator to allow the sugar to dissolve.
2. Add unflavored vodka the next day. Place the cherry-sugar-vodka mixture in a dark and cool place. Shake the container on a daily basis to ensure the cherry, sugar and vodka stay mixed up to six months.
3. At the end of the sixth month, strain the liquid from the cherry-sugar-vodka mixture into a clean glass bottle with a lid that seals airtight and store the bottle of cherry liquor in the refrigerator, and allow it to age another six months. Use the remaining cherries as a dessert topping.