La Cerise Curieuse: Blunders of Anglo-Saxons picking Cherries in France:
Expats Newly Arrived in Provence
Robin and I worked at a large property 2 years ago. The enormous gardens were abandoned and left to be engulfed by the wild Provençal countryside. The owners informed us that somewhere off the road there was an entire cherry orchard. Apparently, the trees that hadn’t bore fruit for years. In January, we found this mysterious orchard. It was made obvious by some nomadic shepherds who had roped it off as an enclosure for their donkeys. After a couple weeks, the donkeys moved on and we were distraught to see they had eaten all of the tender red bark off the bottom of the trees!! It was doubtfull that in Spring, we would be picking cherries.
In my stubbornness, I wanted to see if these trees indeed did produce any fruit. I climbed and scraped through the thick undergrowth of cherry seedlings, wild acacia, roses and weeds to try to hack the choking ivy away from the trunks of what looked like some of the healthier specimens. At one point I was in the middle of the orchard and couldn’t see either end of the rows of trees. It was a dense forest; even in winter.
In March, we witnessed, full of hope, a glorious white blossom along the perimeter of the orchard. We anxiously grabbed the crates left on the street after the weekly market so that we were ready. We were preparing for our harvest. How many cherries can two people eat? We were about to find out.
After weeks of scrutinizing and fondling bunches of fruit, and noticing the increased fervor of the wasps, we finally made the decision that one of the trees was ready. We woke up early to avoid the wasps and heat to find that we had disturbed a Monjack deer gorging on the already fallen cherries. With great enthusiasm, we naively and slowly picked the crimson red fruit. Cherry picking was my new favourite activity. We proudly brought it to the local grocer who agreed prior to our harvesting that he would buy some crates. Not only was it fun- but possibly profitable!
We were confronted first by the look of disgust from the grocer’s wife. It couldn’t be our clothes covered in cherry juice, it must have been the produce. Our incredible enthusiasm had led us to arrive with crates bursting with cherries that had no stems (queues) on them. The ripe flesh was already gathering fruit flies. The grocer’s wife scoffed at our fruit that we had spent hours picking as the grocer himself, Stephan, consoled us with the offer of trying to sell them as ‘jam’ cherries. We visited again a few days later and saw the same shameful crates still on the side.
The French Obsession with Dates
A week later we tried again. We picked less this time and only those that were red but still firm. With crates in hand, we peeked hesitantly into the epicerie. We side-stepped Stephan’s wife but Stephan still looked at us across the counter with what was unmistakably pity for these ignorant Anglophones. We had picked the wrong variety. Coeur de Pigeon was only ready two weeks from now. Even though the succulent fruit in our hands was sweet and ripe- the locals trust only what seems to be their innate sense of what date certain varieties of fruit are at their peak deliciousness.
We found this to be the case with all the fruit we tried to sell, or even give away; the locals have very specific dates in mind as to when certain produce, and certain varieties of that produce, is ready for consumption. You almost have to be born here or live here for many years, to understand the finer points of eating seasonally. How different from our grocery store experiences in the Anglo-Saxon world!
The Sneaky Locals
As for the cherries, I spent the next few weeks coaxing Robin to pick more- and more. Of course, with the absolute certainty that we could eat them all… We hid our ladder at the end of the orchard. Obviously, this didn’t fool anyone as we often returned the next day to find the ladder perched under the tree with the most fruit. Or, the tree that had the most fruit. Despite this, cherry pies and clafoutis ensued.
I still have glass jars of griotte cherries soaking in kirsch. I picked some from the orchard and some from wild cerisiers (cherry trees) along the river. The griotte cherries are small, more acidic cherries with a firm flesh. They are mainly soaked in eau de vie or kirsch here and served simply at the bottom of a glass with a splash of the liquor. We’ve also put them on homemade vanilla ice cream- delicious! (might be a bit alcoholic for the kids, though…)
Therefore, if you happen to stumble upon an abandoned cherry orchard (look for the silvery bark of the trees and the distinct elongated cherry leaves) pick the fruit as soon as they are ripe, or even a bit under-ripe. Just ripe berries are better for you (more nutrients and less sugar). In addition, untreated cherry fruit will be attacked by bugs in the most unpleasant way I won’t discuss here. Sometimes, these things are best left to the professionals.
There are many varieties of cherries. Those produced for the market (within mostly the bigarreaux category of cherry) are of course the sweetest and delicious. Right now, at the very beginning of the season, you will see dark-coloured ‘Cerises Burlat’. The season starts at the end of May and surprisingly continues on through July.
Also, if you plan on buying a cherry tree for your garden, make sure to research if you need two trees or if the variety you are buying is self-pollinating.
Here is some more information (in French) about the varieties of cherries produced in France.
To really celebrate the annual arrival of the delicious cherry- make sure to go to Venasque on Sunday, June 5th where there will be a Fête de la Cerise et Terroir.