The hidden secret of the cherry

The hidden secret of the cherry

Aylin Öney Tan -
The hidden secret of the cherry Who does not like cherries? Luscious and lush, the cherry is undoubtedly the most attractive of all the fruits. Everywhere in the world, cherry-picking time is a joy, a true manifestation of summer. Cherries belong to June and its appearance is always an early celebration of a bountiful summer. 

The cherry is native to Anatolia and has many secrets attached to it. The rumor is that the Roman general Lucullus is responsible for diffusing the cherry to the world. When he set foot on the north Anatolian town of Giresun on the Black Sea coast, he was soon to discover his favorite fruit. When one views old engravings of the city, one clearly sees that the hills backing the settlement resemble a pair of horns. When one looks down towards the sea from the same hills, the city crawls into the sea like an arching horn. Ancient Romans must have seen this and accordingly named the city Kerasus, after the Latin word “Kerason” or horn. So when Lucullus tasted the cherry, he probably did not hesitate a moment to name it after the town he encountered it for the first time. The Cerasus or Kerasus became the root word for the cherry, (English: cherry; French: cerise; Italian: Ciliegia; German: Kirsch; Hungarian: cseresznye; Greek: kerasia; Assyrian: karasya; Arabic: kerez, and last but not least the Turkish kiraz). 

Of course, this is a nice story, one of the culinary myths we like to believe in. But though considered native to Anatolia, long before Lucullus the cherry tree had already made its way in Europe. Prehistoric lake sites in Switzerland reveal cherry pits, and there are several Roman period cherries recorded before Lucullus’ time. While the history of the cherry remains an unsolved mystery, it also has a wild secret. One wild or ancestral variety of the cherry tree, known as St. Lucie (astonishingly similar to Lucullus’ name) is mostly praised not for its fruit, but for its tiny almond-like kernels inside the fruit’s pit. That bitter almond tasting kernel makes an ideal spice, much loved in Turkey, the Balkans, and the Middle East. 

The spice is called mahlep in Turkish, the Latin name of the tree being, Prunus mahaleb, coming from both Arabic and Hebrew mahaleb. The root of the word probably comes from the Semitic root h.l.b meaning milk, one wonders whether it has a linkage with another city known for its formidable cherries, Aleppo. The relation of Aleppo with the root halab, or milk is attributed to the milky white stone the city was built from. Aleppo has wonderful cherry-based kebabs and dishes; one small town close to Aleppo has cherry as its symbol. When I used to visit Syria in the good old days I always searched to find a tea I liked very much, which had nothing to do with cherries but was branded with a cherry logo. It was actually a tea from Sri Lanka, but the cheerful cherry trademark was attractive and the Cherry Brand tea had a really good taste. I don’t know if it was true, but somebody told me that the owner of the brand was from that cherry-town near Aleppo. I’d really like to find more out the Aleppo-Mahaleb link and see if it has the potential to create a new culinary myth that relates the cherry to a city. 

Actually, there is one secret to a cherry that everyone knows: Bursting with life, cherry is the most cheerful of all fruits!

Bite of the Week

Recipe of the Week: My pick as Cork of the Week is Mahlep by Diren, however I must admit that this great drink cannot always be found at one’s corner store easily. If you have a cherry three, preferably an unsprayed one, then go ahead and make your own almondy cherry wine as an aperativo. Take a litre of ordinary red wine, one that is fruity with cherry notes will be better; put the wine in a jar, add a good handful of freshly picked cherry or sour cherry leaves (about 40-50 leaves, wash and pat dry them first); add about 100 g sugar, and 150 ml of vodka. Flavor with a few pieces of star anise, whole allspice berries, and a few black pepper corns; all cracked to release their flavors. Last but not least add 1 teaspoon slightly crushed whole mahaleb almonds. I sometimes add a thin shaving of orange peel as well. Leave the jar in a cool place for a week or so, shaking from time to time. Strain and pour in a bottle with a stopper, and keep refrigerated. Serve cold with ice, and a pair of cherries. Life will instantly be better!

Fork of the Week: Every June, it is pilgrimage time to Kadıköy, Istanbul, to visit Çiya restaurant. Chef Musa Dağdeviren certainly knows how to make cherry kebabs, both the grilled variety with alternate pieces of plump cherries and meatballs on a skewer, or the juicy Lahmi Kiraz kebabı, with tiny meatballs, sour cherries and little onions all piled on wedges of flatbread soaking up the wonderful cherry-laden cooking juices. His little secret is a pinch of mahaleb in the meatballs!

Cork of the Week: If you have a cherry-based dessert, or a wonderful cherry tart, be sure to get a cool glass of Mahlep by Diren to go with it. A vermouth-like invention of father Vasfı Diren of Diren Winery, this unique aromatic wine contains all the goodness of a cherry right down to its pit. Flavored by mahaleb, it has notes of bitter almonds, with a hint of tonka beans and vanilla, and of course of the wild cherries. Served cold, or with ice, it makes the ideal aperativo before dinner.