With Christmas and the end of this year fast approaching we can be forgiven for harbouring a desire to put 2020 behind us as soon as possible and quickly move on to a more hopeful new year.
However, there are still plenty of good times to be squeezed out of 2020 as December marks that most wonderful time on the produce calendar; the beginning of stone fruit season.
For me the highlight of the fruit season in Orange is the cherries.
Perhaps it's because they're the first arrival to herald a new season of promise after the long and fruitless winter in which fresh fruit has given way to preserves.
It could even be the nostalgic memories they invoke of summertime relaxation and festive family gatherings.
From a chef's perspective I think you can't go past the deep rich flavour of a sun ripened cherry that bursts with sweetness and just enough acidity to keep things honest.
Cherries are versatile enough to be a component for every course of a meal.
They're the perfect size for snacking, make a punchy addition to salads, have enough richness to get along well with most meats, can be beautifully paired with spices and chilli, and make the most luxurious of desserts.
Paula Charnock runs Thornbrook Orchard in Nashdale where "pick your own" cherries have become available daily to the public from this week.
Thornbrook Orchard is a family affair that was first established in 1947 by Paula's grandparents and continued by her parents.
Besides cherries the orchard produces apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums, figs, apples, pears, and table grapes which are sold at the farm gate as well as various farmers markets.
There are 20 varieties of cherries growing at Thornbrook, from the early season Merchants, the older variety Ron's Seedling, Bing, Lapin, Sweet Georgia and the late season Sweetheart cherries.
Our season's looking good. Everything's a good size so as long as we can keep pests and diseases at bay it'll be a good season.Paula Charnock from Thornbrook Orchard in Nashdale
Depending on the conditions the season can be spread across a period of weeks from late November to Christmas or even perhaps early January. Also grown are the highly prized morello, or sour, cherries.
Like all farmers in the region cherry growers have been affected by the drought.
Crop yields have struggled with some fruit never reaching picking size.
In 2019 Thornbrook's fruit production was only about half of the usual amount.
The unpredictability of summer storms is always a concern as ripe cherries on the tree are highly vulnerable but Paula is hopeful that, weather permitting, this year we can expect a much better season.
"Our season's looking good. Everything's a good size so as long as we can keep pests and diseases at bay it'll be a good season," she said.
Like many businesses in the region Paula has also seen a surge in demand from domestic tourists exploring the region.
"We always get a lot of interest but it seems that now there's a few people coming who haven't been before. The hardest thing is convincing people that we have 20 varieties so they don't all need to come in the first weekend."
RECIPE OF THE WEEK
- 500 g fresh dark cherries, pitted
- 1 Tb castor sugar
- 50 ml kirsch or brandy
- 2 x large eggs
- 55 g castor sugar
- 1 x vanilla pod
- 50 g plain flour
- 125 ml crème frache or sour cream
- 125 ml cream
- zest of 1 lemon
- butter, for baking
- icing sugar, for dusting
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees.
- Sprinkle the cherries with the 1Tb castor sugar and kirsch and bake for 5-6 minutes until the cherries are cooked but still firm. Set the cherries aside, reserve the cooking juices and turn the oven down to 180 degrees.
- In a mixer beat the eggs and sugar and vanilla seeds (scraped from the pod) until frothy and pale.
- Mix in the flour and combine, then add the reserved cherry cooking juices, crème frache, cream and lemon zest.
- Grease a 25 cm baking dish with the butter, then spread half the custard over the base of the dish. Spoon the cooked cherries over the custard, then add the remaining custard.
- Bake for 30 minutes until the custard has risen and the top is golden brown.
- Dust with icing sugar and serve warm with your favourite ice cream.
Richard Learmonth is an experienced chef and will be writing a food column for the CWD every second Saturday.
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