By Emerald Atkins
In Japan, hanami is the traditional custom of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers, perhaps expressed best every spring when as thousands gather to view the brief flowering period of cherry trees. It may last only days.
Here in Virginia, after the cherry tree blossoms fade from white through deep pink, those in the know anticipate the approaching cherry season, which also is brief.
With luck, one can find cherries at the local farmers’ market during late May and June.
There are many orchards in Virginia that grow the fruit, including those that offer the fun pick-your-own option, such as Spring Valley Orchard, in Afton, VA.
Cherries are a fleshy stone fruit that that come either sweet or sour. The trees have been cultivated since ancient times, in a range that stretches from Asia into northern Africa and upward into Europe. Cultivated cherries are recorded as having been brought to Rome in 72 B.C.E., were introduced into England by order of King Henry VIII, and later brought to North America during the early years of then New Netherland (now New York) when the region was under Dutch sovereignty. They were grown in abundance in Virginia by the second half of the 17th century.
Cherries can be a challenge for orchardists. The species is prone to pests, can be a target for disease, and requires careful handling during harvest, but all of this is of little account to those who love the fruit. All the effort is worth it.
In general, the sweet varieties are best for eating fresh, while sour cherries are best for cooking purposes.
In her excellent 2007 cookbook, In Season, Sarah Raven shares a recipe for a classic French dessert, reproduced below:
Clafoutis is a custard-like cherry tart originating from the Limousin region of central France. In the 19th century this dessert spread all over the country, and now is enjoyed worldwide.
Butter, to grease the dish
⅓ cup all-purpose flour, plus more to dust the pan
½ cup white sugar
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt
1 cup milk
1 lb cherries, pitted
Crème fraîche, as a garnish
Preheat the oven to 375° F.
Butter and flour a nine-inch ovenproof dish or cast-iron skillet.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt, and then sift in the flour. When the mixture is quite smooth, mix in the milk. This can be done in advance and rested for two to three hours, but is not essential.
Pour about ½ inch of batter into the dish or skillet, cover with the cherries, and then pour over the remaining batter.
Bake in the middle of the preheated oven for about 40 minutes, until it is puffed and golden brown.
Remove the clafoutis from the oven and allow to cool a little If you’ve used a skillet, turn it out onto a plate. Sprinkle the clafoutis with confectioner’s sugar. Serve it warm with crème fraîche.
Elegant looking yet easy to make, this dessert would be the perfect way to celebrate our Virginia cherries. Happy baking!