Piquant and sweet spiced cherries, also called pickled cherries, are a specialty of southwest France where they make a perfect accompaniment to the renowned cassoulets and charcuterie delights of that region. The combination deftly translates to my own region, northern California, currently a hot bed of innovative salumi, charcuterie, and other bold dishes, and also a major cherry-growing region.
Cherries are grown almost worldwide in varieties ranging from sour to quite sweet, and they come in colors from pale yellow to blush to deep brownish red. Both sweet and sour cherries are considered suitable for spicing (I prefer the firm sweet varieties, such as the Bings and Brooks I find in my markets), but the color should be red for visual appeal.
For both sweet and sour cherries, the season is fleeting, a mere two to three months from late spring to early summer. Sun drying, freezing, or canning are options for keeping cherries beyond their fresh season, and they all work well for various purposes. There’s also my favorite, easy home way, immersing them in a spicy/sweet/tart brine that goes so well with what’s to come later in the year: grilled goat chops, duck, hearty meat stews, cheese platters for hors d’oeuvres at holiday gatherings. A small jar of them, so pretty, makes a perfect hostess gift for fall and winter festivities.
Makes 2 quarts
2 pounds sweet red cherries
4 cups balsamic vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 Greek bay leaf, fresh or dried
4 whole cloves
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
1. Pick through the cherries, discarding any that are bruised. Leaving the stems intact (they make it easy to pick up each cherry), rinse the cherries in a colander, shake off excess liquid, and transfer the cherries to glass canning jars with screw top lids (see the note above).
2. Place the vinegar, sugar, bay leaf, cloves, and peppercorns in a medium pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.
3. Pour the cooled vinegar mixture over the cherries. Screw on the lids and refrigerate for at least 1 week before using. Will keep in the refrigerator until next cherry season, and the flavor improves over time.
Notes: Peppercorns, a traditional ingredient, are often strained out of the brine when it is added to the cherries. But, they soften in the brine and become tender enough to bite, so I prefer to retain them for the intriguing, slightly crunchy kick they add to the spiced cherry experience.
When making a large batch like this, to be variously distributed later, I use a half gallon (2 quart) canning jar to keep the batch compact while the cherries cure in the refrigerator. Then I divvy them out as needed.