These are the ones that missed my mouth…
Says Suzie pointing the bright gobbets of cherry juice splattered across her chest. I look down. My own front is similarly besmirched. There are twigs in my hair and I am covered all over in filth and crushed up leaves. The neat bun I twisted a top my head this morning is hoiked from it’s torpor and pulled in three directions and I am sticky, sweaty and sunburnt. These are the realities of cherry picking. My dreamy imaginings were filled with cool breezes, bird song and lying in a meadow popping cherries in to my face to the quiet tinklings of a gin and tonic. Instead, it is hot, hard work wading through waste high nettles, banging my head on low hanging branches and falling down small, invisible holes in the ground.
We are deep in rural Kent cramming fruit in to our mouths that belongs to Mike The Veggy Man at Whitegate Farm. I don’t even know his real surname. He is the quiet, faintly melancholic man who sells the vegetables my mother in law buys in enormous quantities at Hilly Fields Farmers Market. He shambles rather elegantly out of his house when we arrive armed with a can of Old Speckled Hen and three black buckets which I know immediately that we must fill to the brim. My in-laws do nothing by halves and I know I will be sent back to pick more if I don’t have a bucketload to heave out of the orchard by the end.
Just these two rows so I know where you’ve been….
Says Mike vaguely indicating a rough opening between the trees and we plunge in to the greenery eagerly. Though yields are at only 10% of normal leavels due to the damp, cold spring, there are still cherries everywhere. Great, fat shiny baubles hanging discreetly in the shade of leaves which, when plucked, give a beautiful hollow pop. They are the flavour of everything good; sweet, sharp and fragrant. The juice runs down my arm and chin and I hurry several more in to my mouth, allowing only a few to burble about in the bottom of the black bucket. In the background a mower drones out a soundtrack of summertime Britain and the sweat prickles at my forehead.
Drifting currents of Rosebay Willowherb seeds float by on currents of warm, damp air and the tiny pink flowers bob as I push past them. Later I learn that I am surrounded by poetry, horse hated yarrow, hawksbeard, wild chamomile, slender speedwell. The whole farm is thigh high in weeds flowering and setting loose clouds of pollen. Mike leaves them to grow as long as he can to encourage aphid munchers like ladybirds who will help protect his crops and the overgrown chaos that ensues is rather more wonderful than the trimmed alternative.
Amongst these blazing flowers and leafy jostlings are also vicious stinging nettles which fizz against my arms and ankles as I push in to the trees to get at the cherries. Later, after I have changed in to sandles, we take a walk around the farm to admire the tayberries, overgrown spinach and crooked ranks of apples trees. I wade in to the undergrowth over spongy piles of compost to pluck at currants and feel the nettles smart against my toes. Afterwards I slope back to the car clutching a glowing punnet of whitecurrants full of embryonic seeds suspended in translucent jelly to find my feet aglow with scarlet patches full of nettle venom. The skin sings almost pleasantly all the way home and right in to the evening ahead only subsiding the following morning in to a mild itch.
In total, we collect a vast twenty five kilograms of cherries for which Mike charges us a completely ridiculous quid a kilo. He is totally uninterested in money and can barely stay focused on the subject and instead points out an oak tree in the far distance in which two buzzards are nesting. It is the one time his eyes sparkle and his voice rises above an even lull. He scritches at the dog’s head, a large alsastian who has dopily followed us around the farm and whined quietly at the heat. We load up the car with warm fruit and glug on shade temperature bottles of lager before driving blearily back to London leaving Whitegates Farm impossibly far behind us.
A compote making, jam boiling, cherry stoning assembly line goes full steam ahead when we get home. I sit selecting the fattest, most perfect of the fruits to go in to alcohol. Jars are sterilised and vodka uncapped. A dash of finest Nielsen-Massey vanilla extract goes in the bottom of each glass jar followed by an obscene stuffing of red fruit and finally we top it up with slug after slug of vodka. On the stove a pan of cherries simmer in their own juices bolstered with almond extract, cinnamon sticks and dark, damp molasses sugar. This marzipan scented ambrosia will be topped up with brandy then sealed up for three months, making way for an exceedingly boozy Christmas and a very happy New Year.
The idea for this particular mixture came from a recipe originating in the UK but which has made its way across the Atlantic all the way to the USA and back again. Cherry Bounce. What a sunny name. An old one too. Though no one can say exactly when this recipe began its boozy beginnings, there are records of someobody in the House Of Lords going by the nickname Cherrybounce as early as 1670 so it’s safe to say that it’s old enough.
Bounce, it is everything I like in a recipe. Simple, gloriously titled, historic and employing of seasonal ingredients for use at another time. I am in love with the idea of ferreting foodstuffs away in jars to be hovered over at a later date. The thought of opening up a jar of boozy, syrupy cherries in mid-January and slurping them down with a spoon until my tongue numbs is particularly wonderful to me.
The variations between bounce recipes are many but the basics are fruit, in this case cherries, alcohol (most commonly used are rye whiskey, cognac or brandy (each will give the bounce a different personality), sugar and spices.
Martha Washington, wife of US president George Washington, used the following recipe:
Extract the juice of 20 pounds well ripend Morrella cherrys.
Add to this 10 quarts of old french brandy and sweeten it with White sugar to your taste.
To 5 gallons of this mixture add one ounce of spice such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmegs of each an Equal quantity slightly bruis’d and a pint and half of cherry kirnels that have been gently broken in a mortar.
After the liquor has fermented let it stand close-stoped for a month or six weeks then bottle it, remembering to put a lump of Loaf Sugar into each bottle.
The older recipes usually call for sour cherries (morrellas, now more commonly known as morellos are a dark, sour variety but there are many others) but these are hard to get unless you have a Turkish supermarket close by. Fortunately I do so I will be out to buy a bag of dried ones to supplement the frozen ones we now have in the freezer. If you can’t get them, it doesn’t seem to matter, just lower the sugar quantities you add.
Martha Washington’s recipe calls for approximately nine litres of brandy which I’m sure you’ll agree is a little beyond the reach of the majority of us. I will be using two litres or so along with 2kg of cherries. I will probably do a mixture of 1.5kg of fresh cherries with 500g of dried sour cherries but let’s work that out later.
To begin, you will need a large jar which can be sealed and can accomodate all your ingredients. Failing this, empty bottles or small jars for which you have the proper lids.
According to many recipes one must remove the stones from the cherries, setting aside a handful of them to use later. Mash the destoned cherries thoroughly with a potato masher, gather the mess in to a muslin and squeeze as much juice out as possible. ( I will have soaked the dried sour cherries over night and will add these in as if they are fresh)
To the resulting juice, add as much sugar as you wish, a cinnamon stick, half a nutmeg and a vanilla pod. Pour in whichever alcohol you have chosen and finally, crack open the cherry stones in a pestle and mortar and sling these in to the mix as well. I’d be tempted to hold back an extra kilo of cherries to prick with a knife and add to the mixture too but I don’t think it’s mandatory.
Set the mixture aside, sealed, for a week….
Once you have anxiously hovered around for seven days, fingers a-scrabble for a sweet alcoholic fix, pop the large jar or several smaller bottles somewhere dark and cool for six weeks and try and think about something else.
Once the terrible waiting period is over you will need to strain the mixture of fruit and spices (you can eat the fruit if it tastes good, preferably at midnight in your pyjamas with a spoon, straight from the jar) and then allow the mixture to settle for a few hours before it is used. FINALLY you can get totally hammered on the the literal fruits of your hard labour.
I also imagine this would be good poured on icecream, flambeed with oranges or pancakes or mixed up with soda water and perhaps some angostura bitters and poured over ice.
We shall see. I’ll start tomorrow.