Thinker Express

News for nerds

In his 2007 book, The Last Food of England, Marwood Yeatman tells a story of a vicar in Landkey, Devon, who noticed the scarlet mouths of his congregation when they sang hymns in high summer. The stain came from mazzards, the West Country name for Prunus avium, the wild or sweet cherries native to the British isles that have been eaten since prehistoric times. The vicar’s memories are of a time when north Devon – particularly the area around Landkey and nearby Barnstaple and Goodleigh – was famous for its mazzards, when trees bearing fruit occupied hedges, closes, village greens and gardens; when handfuls could be pulled from branches and eaten on the way to school or church, to be revealed during O Jesus I Have Promised.

Imagining an entire congregation with scarlet mouths, tongues and streaky teeth, fingertips and nail cuticles too, is the most wonderful picture. I am reminded of eating blackberries as a child, putting more in my mouth than into Tupperware, then pointing a scratched arm at my brother’s devilish mouth and laughing until my eye twitched. Also, of a lunch not very long ago, when I got drunk on wine and cherries with a woman I had only just met. We caught a hysteria we couldn’t shake because every time we opened our mouths and saw the bleeding gums and streaky teeth we started again. Pitting, too, brings delight; it makes an incredible mess and leaves hands still stained the next day.

It is the tail end of cherry season in Rome, but there are still enough around, both sweet and sour, to eat and to cook with. This week’s recipe is a pudding inspired by a liqueur we drank at an agriturismo just outside a town called Loreto Aprutino in Abruzzo. The inky content of our glasses was a result of putting sour cherries, montepulciano d’abruzzo red wine and sugar into a huge, teardrop-shaped glass bottle (its proportions not unlike a child’s space hopper), which was then put on the roof of the agriturismo, in high summer, and left to steep and macerate for a biblical-sounding 40 days and 40 nights. The resulting liquor was the final stop of purple before arriving at black; viscousyet sweet; also faintly leathery, which I assume was the tannins. As well as the recipe, the owner shared that every few years a bottle exploded on the roof, sending deep purple steams down the tiles, which then dripped to the floor – a story I liked almost as much as the one about the vicar.

Thick Greek yoghurt or labneh are both good partners for these cherries, as are mascarpone and ricotta. They are also good with plain cake, madeira cake, seed cake or a lemon ring cake, or as a topping for a pavlova spread with cold, thick cream.

You could also turn this recipe for something to eat into one for something to drink. Just skip the final reduction and tip everything into a fine sieve, pressing down to extract as much from the cherries as possible (the leftover fruit could then be included in a cake), then drink the resulting liquor. A stained mouth and fingers are a promise.

Cherries in wine
Prep 5 min
Cook 20 min
Rest 1 hr
Serves 6

400ml red wine (ideally a full-bodied one)
130g sugar
2 fresh bay leaves
400g cherries, pitted

Put the wine, sugar and bay leaves in a pan over a medium flame and slowly bring to a boil, stirring every now and then. Add the 0cherries, reduce to a lively simmer for eight to 10 minutes, until the cherries are tender but still holding their shape.

Use a slotted spoon to lift the cherries out and into a bowl, bring the liquor back to a boil and reduce by a third, or until it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Pour the reduced syrup over the cherries and leave to sit for at least an hour, and up to three days, before eating.