A quick glance at a woman's hands will tell whether she gathers or she shops for summer produce. Hint: harvesting fruits and vegetables will wreck long, impeccably polished nails in the time it takes apply insect repellant. My own nails were a manicurist's worst nightmare last week. The dark, goulish stains around and under my fingernails were the price I readily paid for the pleasure of picking cherries from the tree in my front yard.
When cherries are ripe there is no time to lose. The window of opportunity lasts less than a week. The process of picking two to three pounds, culling, rinsing off debris and relieving them of their pits takes the better part of a morning. Every year I test several cherry pitters hoping one will magically prove to do the job quickly and cleanly. Yet again, this year I found impaling each cherry with a plastic straw was the most efficient but messy solution. Note: Eat as you work; there are fewer to pit.
If all this sounds slow and low tech, it is. Working with one's hands is also a hugely satisfying way to tune out the world. And when you are finished there are enough cherries to prepare a refreshing Cold Cherry Soup for dinner and preserve a pound or more for the future. This soup takes minutes to cook is also a beautiful ruby color. A last minute garnish of red wine vinegar leaves a moire pattern on the surface. It’s a picture suitable for framing.
It so happens that I have the perfect bowl and plate for serving it. Some years ago I bought a set of blue dishes covered with a cherry blossom pattern in a seconds shop in Limoges. Claude Monet himself had designed this tableware for his home outside Paris in Giverny. He was inspired by the numerous Japanese prints that lined the walls of the dining room. His careful curation of every element in that room has the stunning effect of unifying life at the table with art.
How, I wondered, would Claude Monet's cook have preserved cherries in the kitchen at Giverny a century ago? I checked for recipes in a wonderful memoir and cookbook, Monet's Table written by Claire Joyes, the wife of Monet's great-grandson. What she gathered from Monet's handwritten cooking journals and her personal contact with Marguerite, the cook, are rudimentary recipes by today's standards. Cherries were preserved by sealing them in jars with their juices, submerging them in a water bath and boiling the jars for twenty minutes. Brandies cherries were macerated in a strong eau de vie (double distilled from raisin skins and seeds).
I chose to use recipes from contemporary sources for preparations of Pickled Cherries* and Spicy Cherries in Wine**. Both the pickle brine and sugar syrup for the sweet preserve are easy to assemble. The cherries will age in these solutions over a period of months in the refrigerator, although the cherry pickles are disappearing quickly. They make a great garnish with cheese and a piquant addition to summer salads. I will be guarding the spiced cherries for winter desserts.
* Six Seasons, by Joshua McFadden, pages 57-58.
** Jacques Pepin Celebrates, by Jacques Pepin, page 401.