Cherry season is nearly upon us, and although the Northwest is primarily known for the harvests of sweet Bings and Rainiers, we all know what to do with those: eat them. They make terrible pies and bland jam. They just can’t be cooked. The only uses I have for sweet cherries besides eating out of hand is fermentation (see Double Mountain’s delicious, but now outrageously expensive, krieks), pickling (in vinegar, sugar, and spice—to serve with charcuterie) and, too a much lesser extent, preserving in booze (to get drunk on, out of hand, in the depths of a moldering winter). Sour cherries though, I got an idea for those.
You’ve heard of cherry bounce, that often wretchedly sweet blend of eating cherries and brandy or bourbon. Well, that’s just some slop people call cherry bounce in the amnesiac age, where disruption is indisputably virtuous, and hacking means you’re doing it right. Well, we got neither patience nor palate for that mess. We’re going to make cherry bounce the right way, the old school way, the Sheila Hibben way.
Sheila is kind of my hero of depression-era food writing. Even back then, she could see that American gastronomy was being hijacked by the technological gee-whiz of the industrial revolution and she, like me, had no misgivings about letting people have the tongue lashing they so richly deserve: “refrigeration and good canning mean progress, but before now, in many fields, progress has upset the apple-cart of permanent and enduring standards.” Boom! How’s that disruption taste now, Rob Rheinhart, Mark Post, Frederic Tudor? Not as good as this is going to be…
Bella Organics on Sauvie Island, that riot of Ray Bans, BOB strollers, and microbrews has a secret stand of sour cherry trees that they don’t even know about. You have to climb up into these perilously tall trees with a fruit picker’s ladder, and drop the cherries down into the bucket below, because you’re going to be too busy fighting your way through the cherry branches to get to the cherries hidden inside to deal with a damn bucket. Get a lot, since this is the lowest tech, most primitive and simple preservation method you’ve yet heard of. You could probably slip a microchip in the process somewhere to make it “smart,” but that would be dumb.
Fill a gallon jar with the stemmed but whole sour cherries and pour a fifth of rye whiskey over the top. Put something over the fruit to weight it down. Let it sit for three months or until you get to it again. Dead simple.
Sheila wants you to pour off the booze (and reserve it, of course), mash the cherries, and take care to break some of the pits. This is important. When broken, cherry pits release benzaldehyde, a cyanide precursor, and a little cyanide. This benzaldehyde is the flavor of almond extract. I normally despise this flavor, but here it’s subtle, and goes nice with the cherries. Then she wants us to strain it all through a flannel bag. Old school flannel bag. Here’s where I use a modern convenience that I hope Sheila would be okay with: the food processor. My weak little 21st century arms find all this crushing and squeezing too taxing. I just want to sink down into the smart sofa with a tablet device and pretend to be doing something super primitive and manly like building fortifications or engaging in armed combat
So after we lug that heavy anachronism of a kitchen tool (food processor? Ugh, so not modern) back into the cabinet, we pour the slurry into a conical strainer and pound it through with a pestle or rolling pin or something. Alternatively, you could probably find an old flannel from the ’90’s and squeeze it through that, don’t mind the fake blood stain from your last GWAR show, or the scent of marijuana and Manic Panic. You could also just line a wire strainer with a couple layers of cheesecloth, pour the cherry slurry in, and let it drip through into a bowl overnight. To summarize: extract the liquid from the solids. Then mix the booze back in to the juice.
Sheila wants us to sweeten the booze with “1/2 pound of sugar” “for every quart” of booze. Although I, more than most, appreciate a grandmotherly hand with the sugar, here again we part ways. Make a simple syrup (with as little water as you can get away with) and sweeten the bounce to taste. To my taste, it should resemble a dry cherry lemonade, so maybe half as much sugar as Sheila wants. If you’ve done it right to this point—tricky considering that you’ve had only this block of text rather than a video or an app to guide you through the process—you’re going to want to drink it all right now to shut out the dystopian scenario that your home has become. Don’t do that. Put it in bottles, cork it, and let it sit in the basement for a few more months. Better yet, let it sit a few years until the robots come to take your job away. You can take it with you when the robot sheriff comes on behalf of Bryncorps Financial to evict you from your home, and drink it on the banks of the Sandy River, since that’s the only place the new gentry (the robotic robot designers, programmers, and engineers) will allow homeless humans to stay without fear of being sentenced to hard labor in the scrapyards
While sitting there in the fading light of a perpetually smoggy day at the edge of a garbage-strewn, fluorescent orange river (robots have no need for environmental protections), you’ll have plenty of time to appreciate the ruby hue of the cherry bounce, while relaxing under the shelter of a beat-up old Arcteryx hardshell held up by a couple of ski poles; the color of a ruby port. The slightly oxidized aroma and fore-palate should remind you of that bygone era (right now) when dry sherries were all the rage. Finishing off a small glass will feel as refreshing as a lemonade did, back in the days when lemons were plentiful because the subtropics still had plenty of water, and agriculture was still an anthropocentric enterprise. That was before the robots turned vast tracts of arable land into canola and soybeans for biofuels and industrial lubricants, and forced humans to survive on algae and cicada gruel, with the occasional dollop of vegetable butter. Efficiencies.