Vişne: Sweet, sour & sharp
When it comes to sour cherries, I’m never satisfied with translation. It is “vişne” for me, no other word, whether it is Morello, Montmorency, griotte or amarelle, does not evoke the same sensation. They all seem to be pointing to a specific variety but not embracing the fruit in its whole entity. I suggest having the word accepted by world cuisines as vişne, as it is the only way to understand this much-overlooked cherry.
I was delighted to learn that Turkish was not the only language to use that lovely word. Actually it is a loan word probably from Slavic languages, it is believed to pass on to Turkish from Bulgarian. Višně in Czechoslovakia, wiśnia in Poland, vyshnya in Ukranian, vishnja in Albanian, višna in Bulgaria, vişine in Romania, višanja in Bosnia, and Croatia, vísino in Greece, and vişnya in Russia. Well some spellings may vary where certain sounds are lost in crisscrossing through alphabets. Even the sound of vişne gives a clue about its taste; luscious, very juicy, and sharply tangy in a way that gives a bit of goose bumps. It is interesting that all these countries have a great culture for vişne, Turkey leads as the foremost producer in the world, followed closely by Russia, Poland, and Ukraine.
The great Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi uses the word in 1683, differentiating it from kiraz, the sweet cherry. The tartness of vişne makes it ideal for desserts where a balance between sweetness and sourness is essential, at least for me. As someone who is not crazy about sweets, this acidic balance is crucial for a successful dessert. In Turkish cuisine, regular cherries are only eaten out of hand and enjoyed only as fruit, but seldom used in desserts, dishes or preserving. There are only a few exceptions; the so-called white cherries that are actually yellow of pinkish are pickled in the Black Sea region, especially in Giresun. The city is believed to be the birthplace of cherries, its ancient name “Cerasus” getting its name from cherries or cherries getting its name from the city. The pickled cherries are enjoyed as they are as an appetite teaser, or made into strangely palatable dish with lots of caramelized onions and eggs. The salty electrifyingly sharp taste of the white cherry pickle contrasts with the sweetness of onions and creates an unusual taste sensation.
Of course one does not need to pickle cherries to get that sensation. That is what exactly the beloved vişne does, combining sweetness and tartness in a sharp contrast. There are several uses of sour cherries in Turkish cooking; they are quintessentially turned into jams and preserves, and “vişne reçeli” must be the most iconic of all fruit jams in Turkey. My pious paternal grandmother could not hold herself making jars of “vişne likörü” every year, the potent homemade liquor, with the white lie she kept repeating “for the guests.”
Another traditional dessert is “vişneli ekmek tatlısı,” a bread pudding soaked with syrupy tart cherries, sometimes refreshingly light, sometimes sticky sweet but still spiked with a distinctive tartness no other fruit can give. For a more cooling taste one always resorts to a vişne sorbet, a forever satisfying childhood favorite.
The use of tart cherries is not only confined to sweets in Turkish cuisine. Especially in Ottoman times, the use of fruits in savory meat dishes were quite common, of course with its balanced sweet and sour taste, sour cherries were much used. In Gaziantep, the sour cherry kebab, featuring cherry sized meatballs cooked with cherries and served over pieces of soft flat bread, is both a visual and a sensory delight. The same dish can be made with little pieces of lamb cubes, slow cooked until almost falling apart, steeped with the sweetish sourness of vişne, giving the dish the most delicious cooking juices, again all to be mopped with pillowy soft fresh pide bread. Another Ottoman classic, when the grape vine leaf dolma is made with cherries cooked with freshly squeezed tart cherry juice, it creates an unmatched taste.
But above all the most classic feature of a summer table used to be the “vişne hoşafı,” the sour cherry compote, now seen less and less, perhaps due to the advance of fruit juice industry in Turkey. The readily available tart cherry juices are so satisfying that no one really cares to make a compote anymore, as the fruit juice takes the role of hoşaf/compote at the table. Hoşaf, coming from Persian, means literally pleasant water, and was used to be enjoyed as a palate cleanser drink to be served as a side to the main dishes, but not served afterwards as a last course, like a dessert would be served. A well-made refreshing hoşaf ideally is made with vişne for me, the only fruit that can deliver that sweet and sour and sharp zest to our life.
Recipe of the Week
Now it is time to enjoy the sweet, sour and sharp taste of vişne, the most refreshing way is the cold icy compote, “vişne hoşafı.” This recipe does not cook the cherries so they retain their freshness.
Take 1 kg of vişne and starting sorting out by touching all of them, reserve the firm ones on one side, and the softer squished ones on the other side. It has to have almost a half-half balance. Squeeze the softer ones in a colander placed over a glass bowl reserving all the juices. The only way to do that efficiently is to virtually knead them with your palm. When all the juice is squeezed out, add half a glass of water the remaining pits to extract more juice out of the cherries and continue kneading until you get all that you can. Place the cherry juice in a pot with about 200 g sugar and bring to a boil. Take from the heat at once and stir to dissolve all the sugar. Add the firm cherries and leave to cool. If you want you can pit the cherries but if you do so, reserve the juices and add to the compote. Top with fresh water to dilute, about 2 to 4 glasses, and chill until ready to serve. Serve preferably in chilled glass or crystal bowls; you may also add ice cubes, preferably made from cherry juice.