These tart, acidic cousins of the sweeter table cherries are very hard to find. In the United States, they're grown in large numbers in Michigan and Wisconsin and marketed as either sour or pie cherries. I managed to find them at an u-pick farm in Brentwood, California, but when I got out there, the trees had been picked over and I didn't get enough cherries to make a pie or jam. Special note to cherry growers: please plant sour cherries. Hint, hint.
The most common commercialized sour cherry varieties are the Morello and the Montmorency. The are too tart for most people to eat raw (I tried!) but they make a great addition to pies, jams, and are best used in homemade maraschino cherry recipes. They're also used in soups and meat dishes. Sour cherries are also popular in juice and dried form. Sour cherries are available from June to July.
Some other uses of sour cherries:
• Ginjinha, a Portuguese sour cherry liqueur
• Sour cherry soup is popular in Eastern European cuisines
• Kirsch, a German sour cherry brandy
• Kriek, a Belgian Lambic beer brewed with sour cherries
• Vişinată, sour cherries preserved in alcohol, from Romania
• Albaloo polo, an Iranian rice dish with sour cherries and almonds
Sour cherries were first cultivated around the Caspian Sea by early Persians and brought back to Greece. When the Romans invaded Greece, they discovered the sour cherry, and brought them back to Western Europe and Britain. Today, sour cherries remain popular in Iranian cuisine, and often the best place to find fresh sour cherries is in Persian and Middle Eastern groceries.
Sour cherries are preferred over sweet cherries in baking because they hold their shape better, and their tartness balances out the sugar in the recipes better. The sweeter Bings and Rainiers are better for eating out of your hand raw.
So if they're so great, why are they so hard to find? Well, part of the reason is that they don't last very long once they are picked, which means they aren't commercially viable. Sour cherries are slightly smaller than their sweeter cousins and have a bright red color - very bright. But once picked, their color fades quickly. Other factors working against them are that they have a short growing season, the trees are more fragile, and the fruit are more likely to be eaten by birds than their sweeter cousins. So, for this reason, most of the sour cherry crop ends up in cans and jars. Which is a shame.
So, if you are lucky enough to have an u-pick farm or a farmer's market nearby that has sour cherries, or even a neighbor with a sour cherry tree that wouldn't mind you picking some, take advantage of this opportunity to experiment with a wonderful and elusive fruit!
Couscous With Sour Cherries and Pine Nuts
Recipe: Sour Cherry-Almond Ice Cream with Chocolate Chunks
Summer Preserving: Buy Fruit In Bulk From Local Farms
Recipe Review: Melissa Clark's DIY Maraschino Cherries
(Image: Kathryn Hill)