So Keith comes up to the house on his machine, glint in his eye, and says to me, “I’m taking some wood down to Fix Farm tomorrow morning; do you want me to set you up?”
Now I have absolutely no idea what Keith means today by ‘set me up’, but in the past ‘setting me up’ has resulted in a home-made smoker showing up in my driveway, a hand-forged grill by my pond, packets of prime venison in my freezer and/or buckets of fruit on my doorstep, wild turkey in my cast iron skillet, and so of course, Keith, whatever it is, please set me up!
After a text or two with Keith’s wife, Kelli, and a meeting spot arranged, I soon realize, today I am being set up for cherries.
Around mid-June (for sweet reds!), then late-June (for tart reds!!), then mid-July (for black sours!!!!), the cars line up for miles at the Fix Brothers Farm U-Pick. The city-folk come up from the city; the country-folk come down from the country; everyone comes out from everywhere for the infamous Fix cherries.
I follow Keith and his trailer of wood to the back of the farm beyond the tourists and the parked cars (‘set up’ usually involves an inside track). The cherry trees seems to go on for miles. The hundreds of people who park here everyday couldn’t possibly make a dent in the picking. Rubies dot the landscape. Fix’s is a Pirate’s Booty of cherries.
Keith is excited to show me the sweet cherry orchard – actually thousands of trees – the dark, plump ones that make for good eatin’, but it is the tart cherries I’m after; the ones that taste like crap fresh from the colander, but come alive inside the Ball Jar, or the pie crust, or floating for a fortnight in sugar and brandy. Sour cherries are to sweet what a Chateau d’Yquem is to a Pete’s Wicked – imminently less drinkable right from the barrel but way more complex and refined from the cellar.
I am only too happy to meet Brad, a 5th generation Fix, heir-to-cherries. Brawny and farmy-cute in his cherry-red truck, Brad is pure Front Cover Hottery Barn. I ask him about red sours. Brad pauses, wipes his brow and ponders the question for a moment. “…Are they ready?” I add with a hopeful smile.
The second batting of my eyelashes pays off and Brad leads me even further into the orchard, past a hill, beyond a house, to the inner sanctum, the super-secret stash of yet un-picked, yet un-announced, ripe Montmorency cherry trees. The coveted red sours. Set up indeed.
In the end I leave with more cherries than I know what to do with because that’s how I roll.
The ride home is long, which gets me thinking about cocktails. While sour cherries makes for a jaw-dropping jam and a pie upon which an entire religion could be built, I’m thinking I want to do something different this year with my cherries. I remember a photo posted last year by Melissa Watson, cocktailtrix extraordinaire, and the cocktail cherries her mother makes (Mom, why don’t you make me cocktail cherries? Not even once!). I decide I want to start with with these and go from there.
While I covet the super-badass $270 stainless steel cherry stoner made famous by Rachel Saunders, pitting cherries with my new $15 4-pit cherry pitter makes the process way more doable and satisfying. Clamping down again and again and watching the pits effortlessly eject out the bottom provides for a morning of kitchen-nerdy, cherry-pitting fun.
Glossy and sickly-sweet, Maraschino Cherries have held me in their spell since childhood. From Shirley Temples to Manhattans, the cherry (or 5 cherries if you have the nerve to ask the waitress for them) is the main reason to order the drink.
This is a case where the homemade product can’t come close to beating the mass-produced, chemical-laden delights from the grocery store; instead these offer something different – a beautifully complex, hand-crafted bite of sweet fresh fruit and spice atop your cocktail.
This recipe consists of two parts: brining the cherries and making the brandy syrup. You can do both the night before then combine things in the morning after a night chillin’ in the refrigerator.
MELISSA’S MOM’S ‘MANHATTAN STYLE’ BRANDIED CHERRIES
2 lbs washed and pitted cherries (like that‘s easy?!)
3 tbsp sea salt
6 cups water
3 cups brandy syrup (see below)
1. Bring the water to a boil, then add the salt until dissolved. Remove the salt water from heat and add the cherries to the salt-water brine.
2. Brine the cherries overnight in the refrigerator.
Brandy syrup ingredients:
2 cups water
1 cup cherry juice (made with 1 lb pitted cherries)
3 cups sugar
juice of 2 limes
1 tsp Citric Acid (or a crushed Citamin C tablet)
1 1/2 cups brandy (I used a combination of slivovitz brandy, cherry brandy and a dash of Root liquor)
1. If you don’t have a juicer, add the cherries and a small amount of water to a blender. Blend until thoroughly liquefied. Strain the liquid into a bowl through a fine mesh sieve and discard the solids.
2. Add the Citric Acid or the crushed Vitamin C tablet to the juice.
3. Dissolve 3 cups of sugar in 2 cups of water over medium-high heat. Add the cherry and lime juice and simmer until reduced to about 3 cups, removing any scum from the top as it simmers.
4. Cool the juice mixture then stir in your choice of brandy.
5. The next day, rinse off the brine from the cherries.
6. Place the cherries in a clean container (I like to use a large glass Ball Jar) and cover with the brandy syrup.
Store in the refrigerator for a few days. Begin tasting at anytime. The cherries are ready when the saltiness subsides and the flavors meld and intensify.
Take your boots off before you come in here!