The Spanish love their cherries, or cereza as they are known in Spain. Cherry cultivation dates back to 300BC, making it one of the world's oldest cultivated fruits, along with its cousin, the apricot. Part of the rose family, the common cherry tree is native to western Asia and temperate eastern Europe.
Spain is one of Europe's biggest cherry producers; the Jerte Valley, south-west of Madrid, is one of the country's largest growing areas. Cherry blossom season is celebrated here each year with two weeks of festivities beginning at the end of March, when the hills turn white with blooms.
We are in the middle of Australia's cherry season, so it's time to take advantage of this special fruit. Pickled cherries are so easy to make and a wonderful addition to a meal. Try them with roast duck, or a baby spinach salad with hazelnuts. They also go well with pork, as the sweet fruit flavour and acid in the pickle cuts through the fat. For sweets, the cherry pie is a wonderful golden treat with a tart edge.
HERBED AND SPICED CHERRIES
600ml cider vinegar
5cm piece cinnamon stick
1 tsp allspice berries
Finely grated zest and juice of one orange
1kg firm red cherries, halved and pitted
750g white sugar
1 tbsp lemon thyme
3 sprigs rosemary, leaves left on stalk
Put vinegar, cinnamon, allspice berries, orange zest and juice into a pan and bring to the boil. Boil for 4-5 minutes, strain and set aside to cool. Transfer cooled vinegar mix to a clean saucepan, add cherries and slowly bring to a simmer. Simmer over a very gentle heat for 10-15 minutes until cherries are just tender. Remove cherries with a slotted spoon and pack into warm, sterilised jars. Add sugar to spiced vinegar and return to heat. Stir until sugar dissolves then cook for a few more minutes until mixture has reduced and thickened a little. Remove from heat, add herbs and stir then stand for 5 minutes to infuse the flavour. Pour hot, spiced syrup over cherries. Seal immediately, using vinegar-proof lids. Store jars in a cool, dark place. Pickled cherries are best stored for 6-8 weeks before eating.
Makes 2 x 600g jars
BASQUE CHERRY PIE
250g fresh cherries, halved and pitted
300g castor sugar
1 tbsp brandy
Grated zest of ½ lemon
350g plain flour, sifted, plus extra to dust
200g unsalted butter, softened and
40ml dark rum
Place cherries in a small saucepan with 60g of the sugar, brandy, lemon zest and water. Stir well to dissolve sugar and cook slowly over low-to-medium heat for 45 minutes, or until a loose jam forms. Remove from the heat and cool. Meanwhile, lightly beat two eggs in a bowl. Add flour, butter, rum and remaining sugar, and mix with a spoon until the dough comes together. Shape into a ball, dust with a little extra flour, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 180C. Roll pastry into a large log on a well-floured surface. Slice into 12 rounds about 1cm thick. Grease and flour six 10-cm heavy-based pie tins. Roll each pastry round out to about 5mm thick. Use half the rounds to line the tins, then spoon cherry jam into pastry shells. Cover with another round of pastry and press the sides to seal well. Lightly beat remaining egg and brush over pie tops. Using a small sharp knife, score tops for decoration. Set pie tins on a heavy-based baking tray and bake for 30 minutes, or until golden. Serve warm.