Oh Cherry, Oh Baby: When life gives you lemons, bake a cherry pie

Oh Cherry, Oh Baby: When life gives you lemons, bake a cherry pie
Still life is just a bowl of cherries. Styling and photography by Louis Pieterse

Sometimes you start writing a story, and you think you know where it’s going. This started out as a story about cherries, but it ended up as a story about a baby.

January was always going to be about journeys, but not quite the one we ultimately found ourselves on. We were going to KwaZulu-Natal for New Year and to visit family, but within a week we’d be home, January would still be young, and we’d be back to work and waiting for the month’s second long-haul trip: To Cape Town, for a very special family occasion.

En route from the Eastern Cape to the KZN Midlands on the last day of 2018 we passed Clocolan – the heart of the South African cherry industry just before Ficksburg – and found ourselves at one of the most wonderful farm stalls I’ve encountered. It’s called Constantia Farmstall, a name which seems to ring of grapes and wine, but in fact is all about cherries. Fresh cherries, which had been very much in mind because, only days before, my daughter and son-in-law had been picking cherries at Klondyke Cherry Farm near Ceres in the Western Cape, and their great basket of fresh, perky red cherries with their antenna-like stems had made me yearn to eat them and cook with them. They planned to make cherry jam and a cherry clafoutis such as this one that French-British super chef Raymond Blanc makes.

The array of bottled cherry products at Constantia Farmstall, Clocolan, southern Free State. Photo: Tony Jackman

Constantia Farmstall began in 2006 as a simple point for selling the farm’s fresh cherries, but you should see it now. Its products range from juices, liqueurs, jams and ice cream toppings to chutneys and sorbets, all with cherries as the hero; there’s even a cherry craft beer. It’s a cherry wonderland, and I felt like a kid, being in there. (Let us know about great farm stalls you admire by emailing Tony Jackman at [email protected]). It’s on the R26 on the Maluti Drakensberg Tourism Route, which skirts the Lesotho border in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. You can down a cherry smoothie and eat a pancake with a cherry sauce in their indoor-outdoor restaurant, with chickens roaming underfoot. (Which, by the way, are nice with a cherry and black olive sauce.)

UB40’s Cherry Oh Baby, a song I’ve loved for decades, was stuck in a loop in my head for the rest of the journey past Ficksburg to Clarens, where we spent the night, and on through verdant hills into the Midlands.

We continued our journey to KwaZulu-Natal where, in Pietermaritzburg, lies another haven for those of us who enjoy the lovely things in life that offset all the bad stuff: Rosehurst, one of our favourite spots anywhere, with a wonderfully fresh blackboard menu of things like Garden Pea Soup or Bagel with Smoked Salmon and Creamed Egg. Its formal English garden is lovingly tended; the little book shop has masses of vintage tomes, and the house’s rooms are each filled with ornaments and oddities to buy.

Two back-to-back- views of Rosehurst:

The second planned trip of the new month saw us driving to Cape Town for a Sunday baby shower brunch at beautiful Chart Farm in Wynberg or, as some locals like to call it, Constantia North-North-East. I’d never been to Chart Farm. It’s all about roses and vines. Vineyards spread gracefully towards distant mountains where grand farms like Groot and Klein Constantia and Buitenverwachting lie. You stroll through a nursery of so many rose varieties that it’s impossible to choose. I eventually chose one for myself, a rose with a deep, deep orange flower which, on a whim, I gave to my girl and her man with a quick, “This is the baby’s first plant.” They remonstrated, but let’s say dad can be very stubborn. My dad had taught me to garden while my mom had taught me the basics of decent cooking. I’d grown dahlias and freesias, runner beans and rhubarb, just as I’d cooked creamed button mushrooms my dad and I had picked on the soccer field nearby. So it was important to me that my GrandBoy, when he arrived in late March, would come to know the value of growing things, and the lifelong pursuit it can become.

The Chart Farm brunch was brilliant (which was a relief, since we’d already paid for it). Quiches and croissants, scones with jam and cream. The expectant parents had bought a Wish Book in which each guest had a page, where you wrote your hopes for the pending human being. I hope you become… (“a rock star”, wrote someone. Oh hang on, it was me); I hope you love … “lamb!” (Okay that was me too.) And so on. I loved my wonderful brother-in-law Gerry’s wish: “I hope you become… that huge hunk”.

Journalist, spokesperson and hobby Cake Goddess Bianca Capazorio made the cake, Neal Jackman-Derman fashioned the elaborate decoration. The adventure sure was about to begin.

Before lunch I had found, near Chart Farm’s garden restaurant, a kiosk selling big boxes of fresh cherries. Still top of mind from my family’s earlier visit to pick cherries, I bought a box (R270! Ouch!) intending to take them home and use them to conjure up some recipes for our new Thank God It’s Food pages and newsletter. Which I hereby do. If a tad late. I’ll explain why. (Don’t worry, cherries come in many preserved forms.)

The cherries in their box went home with us back to the Eastern Cape while we talked about the planned March trip back to Cape Town round about the time of the boy’s birth. But only days later, before January had even ended, we found ourselves hurriedly flying back to Cape Town. Less than a week after that brunch, my daughter was in intensive care. A terrible turn of events had turned a pending joy into a potential tragedy. I’m glossing over details too personal, other than to say that the prospects were extremely dire for mother and child.

In the end, a premature birth gave us a daughter who survived and was carefully tended in ICU for long days and nights, and is fully recovered, and a darling little boy who is already the star of our little family universe.

We can’t predict life or death. We can’t even predict the seasons, really, even if they seem to have been set in stone by the Weather Gods. “Unseasonal” weather happens all the time. And the cherries we were eating and buying were, only weeks ago, in their late season, but the season for fresh cherries has now slipped by. Having said that, the box of cherries I had bought in Cape Town and trekked back to the Eastern Cape had been forgotten in that mad rush to get to my girl (and her cargo) in hospital. The box was in a fridge at home, and while we were flying home a week later – the crisis over – I imagined them rotting and turning from their luscious red to putrid browns and yellows.

But no. Opening the fridge on my return, and then, holding my nose, opening the box, I found a huge mound of fresh-as-dew cherries, still bursting with colour and their flavour even sweeter. That’s them in the photographs.

Our January cherry story somehow came full circle, and I spent the next few days hopping between making a cherry jelly and a chocolate cherry tart and checking for the latest photos of mom and infant in a family WhatsApp group.

I’d been reminded that we worry about the small stuff too much, and should never take for granted the people we love; we just don’t know what’s around the bend. And I’d learnt that fresh cherries, in a box in the fridge, keep perfectly well for two weeks. And that sometimes life gives you lemons, and then, unexpectedly, rewards you with a box of cherries.

Meanwhile, little fella, when one day you read this, there’s a song I hope you’ll love and that will always remind you of this story. The link’s up there. DM

Tony Jackman is Daily Maverick’s Food Editor. His book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau), a cookbook-cum-memoir with essays about life, food, living, family and even grieving and illustrated by 60 recipes, was nominated for the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards (2018) in the category for best food writing. Book enquiries: [email protected]


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