For several years our cherry trees in the Monferrato hills would not bear any fruit. They had been planted over a hundred years ago by my husband’s great grandfather. We had therefore all assumed that they were at the end of their lives. To our delight though, we were proved completely wrong and have ended up picking cherries by the basketload so far this summer!
During our first cherry-picking expedition, I noticed that the cherry trees bore different varieties of fruit and leaves. These relatively light-coloured cherries, moreover, were not like any I had come across before either. Intrigued, I asked my in-laws about them. They explained that one was a species of sweet cherry called “graffione bianco” and the other was a variety of sour cherry called “agriotta”. Once we were back home, I took it upon myself to find out some more about these delicious drupes, their cultivation and possible culinary uses!
According to Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food, the wild ancestors of sweet (Prunus avium) and sour (Prunus cerasus) cherries originated in West Asia. Written records of cherry consumption date back to at least 300 BC in Ancient Greece. In fact, the English cherry, French cerise, Piedmontese cirese and Turkish kiraz all derive from Kerasos (now Giresun, Turkey), the name of an ancient town in the Pontus region of Asia Minor. Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia indicates that, by the 1st century AD, at least nine varieties of cherry trees had made their way to the Italian peninsula. Their fruit was held in high esteem and the Romans played a big part in spreading their cultivation to the farther reaches of their empire. The first site of cherry cultivation in Piedmont appears to have been in the Roman settlement of Carrerum Potentia (better known today as Chieri).
In Italy, sweet cherries are generally classed into two main groups:
- duracine (bigarreaux) – firm and dry flesh
- tenerine (guignes) – soft and juicy flesh
The graffioni bianchi we picked belong to the bigarreau group. Like other bigarreaux, they are often used for the production of liqueur-filled chocolates. They can also be preserved in alcohol (sotto spirito) or in their syrup (sciroppate) . In my opinion, many types of bigarreaux are delicious eaten raw. However, I have noticed many locals seem to opt for the softer and juicier guignes as a raw dessert fruit.
Sour cherries, on the other hand, are nearly always cooked and/or preserved and sweetened. They are often classified into three categories:
- amarene (amarelles) – lightly coloured and with clear juice (although their name would suggest that they belong to the griottes group below, the agriotte we picked are actually a type of amarelle)
- visciole or griotte (griottes) – dark and with coloured juice
- marasche – small-sized, dark and with coloured juice (in Italy, these types of sour cherry are almost exclusively used for making cherry-based liqueurs such as Maraschino)