I believe I’m a rational person but I do have my contradictions – and I live them to the full. Every year in spring, for example, I perform a ritual that isn’t rational at all.
Italy is my country of adoption and I follow an old Italian custom: when I eat my first cherry of the season, I make three wishes. I keep them to myself of course, though as anyone who knows me will tell you, they never come true.
In Italy I’ve always lived in Piedmont and I also stick to an old Piedmontese tradition. Namely, the one of never eating cherries after June 24. Here’s why …
‘Cherries, of course!’
A couple of years ago, I was having dinner on the terrace of the Ristorante Eea (which I warmly recommend), high up over the harbour on the island of Ponza off the Lazio coast. It was June 23.
At the end of the meal – cod crumbed in ground pistachio nuts served with roast potatoes and torretta di melanzane, a little tower of eggplant, Silano cheese and tomato, like an individual parmigiana – owner and ace chef Davide De Luca came to take my dessert order.
‘Ginger semifreddo, crema cotta … or fresh cherries?’
‘Cherries, of course!’
‘Why “of course”?’
‘Because after tomorrow I won’t be able to eat them any more.’
‘Why, some sort of religious vow?’ asked the woman at the next table, who had been eavesdropping on the conversation.
‘No, it’s that in Piedmont where I live, June 24, the Feast of San Giovanni, is traditionally the last day in summer when you can eat cherries before maggots, known in dialect as giuanin, after Giovanni, start appearing in them.’
‘When in Rome … I suppose,’ said the woman, ‘but we have no similar customs on Ponza. It’s a question of latitudes.’
Whatever, the cherries at Eea were plump and sweet, juicy and undefiled, the way they ought to be.
I say cherries, but cherries come in lots of different varieties. Or used to.
In the first century A.D, Pliny the Elder listed the Apronian, the Caecilian, the Junian, the Lusitanian, the Lutitian, the Macedonian and the Chamaecerasus.
In 2008, the Slow Food Dictionary of Italian Regional Cooking listed only a few: ‘Two varieties in particular are grown: Prunus juliana, with soft flesh, known as ciliegia tenerina, and Prunus duracina, with firmer flesh, known as durone…
Other varieties are marasca, visciola and amarena’.
‘Cherries have followed the same destiny as apples…’
As a side-effect of the ongoing debate on climate change, the word ‘biodiversity’ is on everybody’s lips at the moment. But the crisis didn’t begin yesterday.
At the Slow Food Award for Biodiversity ceremony in Bologna in 2000, I had the chance to speak to one of the winners: Roger Corbaz, a phytopathologist on horticulture plants at the Nyon station in Swtizerland.
He told me that, ‘Cherries have followed the same destiny as apples, with priority being given to just three or four varieties that are suitable for transport. In this way good old soft, juicy cherries have disappeared. To think that here in Switzerland we used to drink incredible amounts of cherry juice!’
The cherry is arguably the fruit most represented by poets and painters, and it is to the art of the past that we have to turn to get an idea of the biodiversity that we are missing today.
In 2016 I visited an exhibition entitled ‘Eccentric Nature: extravagant and bizarre fruit in Bartolomeo Bimbi’s paintings for the Medici family’, at Palazzo Madama in Turin.
So who was Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729)? He was an artist who worked at the court of Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici and of him his biographer, Francesco Saverio Baldinucci, almost a contemporary, wrote: ‘Neither Titian nor Raphael nor any other painter of fruit and flowers in the world could ever have painted their shapes and forms so well as he’.
Baldinucci wasn’t wrong. At the Turin exhibition one was able to admire canvases of all sorts of lemons, melons and water melons, apricots, grapes, pears, beets, cabbages, mushrooms, chestnuts, pumpkins, cauliflowers and more besides, all so ‘real’, so tactile, so colourful, they almost seemed to exude scents and aromas.
The standout painting in Turin was Bimbi’s celebrated still life of all the cherry varieties cultivated on the Medici estates tumbling out of a basket, at its centre the moscatella bianca, a yellowish white cherry hard to find at markets these days.
The painting – entitled, you guessed, Cherries – can be viewed today with most of the rest of Bimbi’s oeuvre at the Museum of Still Life in the Medicean villa at Poggio a Caiano, near Florence.
‘…all the different ways the Marchigiani use it’
As is Chinese Porcelain Plate with Cherries, another delicious paean to the fruit by the court miniaturist. Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670). Maybe it’s a coincidence but she was born in the Marche region, in Ascoli Piceno to be precise.
Though in Italy the cherry is cultivated mostly in Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Campania and Puglia, Marche is the region with which I most associate it – partly out of personal experience and partly on account of all the different ways the Marchigiani use it.
I’m thinking of visciole al sole, pitted sour cherries sweetened with sugar and left to macerate in the sun in glass jars.
I’m thinking of amarene di Cantiano – typical of the village of the same name in the province of Pesaro – fleshy local sour cherries pitted and boiled in their own juices with sugar.
I’m thinking of quails with stewed cherries, a wonderful dish I once ate in a restaurant in the Pesaro hinterland.
‘The result is a fantastic vino da meditazione…’
And I’m thinking most of all of vino di visciole, also known as visciolato or visner, one of many Marche fruit-flavoured wines.
It is made either by macerating wild cherries in a base wine or macerating sun-dried cherries and adding them to grape must.
The result is a fantastic vino da meditazione, a wine to sip and mull over.
There’s an expression in Italian ‘una ciliegia tira l’altra’, literally, one cherry leads to another – to describe how moreish cherries are.
Which is true, but, believe me, vino di visciole is more moreish still.