06 June 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Vignola's Cherry Festival

CHIAVARI, Italy – I almost had a heart attack last week. I went into my nearest greengrocer to pick up a couple of things, and as I approached one of the shelving units a small black bird – a merlo - flew up, turned and fluttered out the window. The owner started to laugh at my startled reaction. “We put cherries on that shelf for the birds to eat otherwise they fly in a peck at everything,” she said.

Castle in Vignola 

It made sense to me. I was there for cherries too. This is cherry season and the cherries are coming in from Italy’s cherry capital, Vignola, a small town near Modena in Emilia-Romagna that was built near an ancient Etruscan road that connected Bologna to Parma. This weekend, 8-9 June, Vignola is holding its annual cherry festival.

Vignola, from the Latin vineola (small vine), is located near an ancient Etruscan road that connects Bologna to Parma. Some records show it was founded in the year 826 as a castle to protect the lands of the Abbey of Nonantola, which is nearby. The story of the cherries goes back even further, to the days of the Roman Empire.

Cherry Festival Vignola

The Roman general Lucius Licinius Lucullus is credited with being the person who first brought the seeds of the cherry tree to Italy. It’s possible. In his twenty year career as a military officer in the Roman Republic, he spent most of his time conquering the kingdoms of north-east Asia where the cherry tree is said to have originated.   

His primary interest, apart from being a soldier, was agriculture and he is the person who built the horti Lucullani, the famous Gardens of Lucullus on the Pincian Hill in Rome. So given his interest, it seems reasonable that he would slip a few cherry pits into his pocket to bring home and plant. 

It was good that he did because cherries not only taste delicious, but they are also good for you. In fact they seem to be a wonderfruit. They purify and detoxify your entire body and rebalance your intestines, and because of the amount of anthocyanins they contain, they are an anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving agent. Best of all, you only need 20 cherries a day to get all those incredible benefits.

When you buy them, look for cherries that are firm and have a nice, bright color and a stem that looks fresh, not dry. You can keep them for a few days you keep them in a cool place, like a refrigerator, stored in a plastic bag that has a lot of holes in it. However, it’s a good idea to keep them away from any aromatic food you may have in the fridge, like cheese, as cherries absorb odors. You can freeze them if you cook them first, either with the pit or without, and add a little sugar while they are cooking.

Bright, fresh cherries
Today’s recipe comes from The Art of Eating Well by Pelligrino Artusi. Artusi was a silk merchant with an interest in food. When he retired from the silk business he traveled around Italy collecting recipes from Italian mamas. He was the first to recognize the value of the dishes being created in their kitchens, and decided to put them in a book. Of course he had to take their vague cooking instructions and suggestions and turn them into recipes that readers could follow, but that effort resulted in La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene (The Art of Eating Well). And you’ll  ‘mangiar bene’ if you try his recipe for cherry pudding. This recipe is written exactly as it appears in his book.

DOLCE DI CIGLIEGE (Cherry Pudding)

½ cup minus 2 tablespoons (2 ounces) almonds

4 eggs, separated

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

½ cup bread crumbs

2 tablespoons rosolio* (substitute rose water or rose petal extract/oil)

Vanilla extract or lemon peel

½ pound (250 grams) raw, stemmed cherries

Peel, dry and mince the almonds, reducing them to half the size of a grain of rice.

Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until the mixture becomes frothy, then add the bread crumbs, the rosolio and the flavoring and stir the mixture (by hand) for a few more minutes.

Whip the egg whites until they are stiff and fold them in. Butter a smooth-sided mold and sprinkle it with the almonds, then pourin the batter and finally the cherries. To keep the almonds from sinking to the bottom mix some of them into the batter.

Bake the pudding in a preheated 350 degree oven for about half an hour or until the pudding sets. Serve it either hot or cold to four or five people.

*Rosolio is a cordial originally made from rose petals, rose oil and honey. It dates back to the 15th century and is said to have been a favorite drink of Caterini de’Medici. It is still made in Italy today, in Calabria and Sicily, and is used more as a flavoring in deserts and pastries than as a drink. Rosolino is a less alcoholic version of rosolio.

Unfortunately you won’t find it outside of Italy as it is not exported, but I don’t see why rose water or rose petal extract/oil can’t be used as a substitute. Just be careful not to use too much, you don’t want to overpower the flavor of the cherries. Give it a try.

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