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Life is a bowl of cherries

TGIFOOD

FRENCH LETTER

Life is a bowl of cherries

A bowl of cherries from a young tree in the front yard. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

Contemplating a bowl of beautiful cherries can become a tempting philosophical exercise in the summer heat of Provence. Or you can simply eat the cherries and spit out the pits.

The author supports Ladles of Love, an NGO feeding the hungry and providing healthy food in Cape Town. You can support them here LadlesofLove.

Decades ago the American humourist Erma Bombeck wrote a bestseller with a catchy title, If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? I remember my mother suppressing fits of giggling while reading it in the late seventies. 

I didn’t read it myself, because in those days I was a serious young student of international literature whose idea of leisure reading was Kafka on the beach. No, not Kafka on the Shore, the novel that the Japanese Murakami would write many years later. I was literally reading Kafka (and Dostoevsky) while trying to fry my pale skin a few shades darker on a beach in Africa. Go figure.

A funny book about cherries as a metaphor for married life seemed far too superficial for the future writer I was hoping to be. The only cherries I would allow in my exclusive literary universe were those growing in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. And of course I was too young to catch the humour in that marvellous play. I thought it was all very, very serious.

Besides, at that age I had never actually seen a bowl of fresh cherries in real life. A cherry, for me, was South African slang for a girlfriend, like goose or stukkie. Or it was a sticky and shiny little object used to decorate chocolate cakes and my mother’s Christmas trifle. 

Glazed or glacé cherries they were called, a local version of Italian maraschino cherries traditionally manufactured from sour marasca cherries growing on the Dalmatian Coast and soaked in a liqueur distilled from the pits, stems, leaves and flesh of the same cherry. The preserved cherries I got to know in my youth contained no alcohol, were almost sickeningly sweet and dyed a garish red colour, like miniature toffee apples. I assumed that was how a cherry was supposed to look and taste. 

Sometimes they were also dyed bright green, but even in my innocence I realised that a “real” cherry could not be that colour.

I was a grown woman, on the far side of 30, when I picked cherries from a tree for the first time, here in France, and popped them in my mouth. Delighted by the taste of a plump, juicy and above all fresh cherry. Even if I had to learn to spit out the pits, because the glacé cherries of my childhood never contained any stones or kernels or whatever you want to call the hard core of the fruit.  

And once the neighbour across the street invited me and my toddler son to help ourselves to the cherry tree in her garden, the gates of paradise swung open for us. For the first time I understood the old saying about life being a bowl of cherries. 

In fact the saying is not all that old, I learned after a little research. It originated in America, the country of cherry pies, and was popularised, in true American fashion, by a song in a stage show, George White’s Scandals. Composed in 1931 by Ray Henderson with lyrics by Lew Brown and Buddy DeSylva, it features the quaintly philosophical lines: 

A bowl of cherries from a young tree in the front yard. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

Life is just a bowl of cherries

Don’t take it serious, it’s too mysterious

You work, you save, you worry so

But you can’t take your dough when you go, go, go  

Apparently it was an instant hit, charming even Albert Einstein. According to his wife Elsa he was whistling this tune called Love Is Just a Bowl of Cherries (sic) all the time soon after settling in Princeton, New Jersey in the early thirties. More than three decades later it was still a personal favourite of Doris Day who recorded her version in the sixties: 


And if the great Einstein could be amused by this silly little song, why would us lesser mortals disagree with the sentiments expressed so succinctly? That’s what I was wondering this past month while contemplating a bowl of freshly picked cherries from the small tree in our front yard. 

It was the very first tree I planted when we moved to this old house ten years ago. Probably the best proof of how much I’ve come to love fresh cherries, because I had to learn how to use a pick-axe to break open the rocky soil before I could plant the tree, which left quite a few blisters on my spoilt white hands. 

Mont Ventoux through the branches of an old cherry tree growing in a vineyard. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

However glamorous my French life sometimes sounds to South African friends, the fact is that we’ve never been able to afford help in the garden. My partner and I planted every tree and shrub around the house ourselves, without paid help to spare our aching backs or our blistered hands. This hard labour binds us in a visceral way to our overgrown garden, ensuring that our cherries and figs, our apples and almonds taste even sweeter to us. 

After a couple of years we could pick about two dozen cherries from our young tree, and the modest harvest has been increasing (modestly) every year. In the late spring/early summer of 2021 we counted more than 200 cherries – although half of these had been spoilt by insects or birds before they were ripe enough to feed the humans in the house. 

Thank heavens we are not dependent on this struggling little tree for all the cherries we eat each year. Most of our harvest comes from three ancient trees growing abandoned in a vineyard behind the house. These trees don’t belong to us, but the wise old peasant farmer in whose family’s vineyard they grow tells us they don’t “belong” to him either. He didn’t plant them, he says, he found them there. They are a gift from nature, and since his children live too far away to enjoy the gift in the brief period when the cherries are perfectly ripe, we are welcome to pick as many as we want each summer. 

Which is what we do, with grateful hearts and greedy mouths, for about a fortnight – before the insects and other living creatures claim their share of nature’s bounty. During these two weeks we eat fresh cherries morning, noon and night, but there are always far more than we can consume. So we preserve them in syrup or cook jam or freeze them for later in the year. 

This is the moment when my annual cherry contemplation takes a philosophical turn. Hamlet’s To be or not to be soliloquy becomes the lament of a lazy cook. 

To stone or not to stone, that is the question.  

Whether ’tis nobler for the guest to suffer

The stones and kernels of unpitted cherries, 

Or for the cook to take arms against a mass of pits

And by hard work remove them.

(Or something along these lines.)

I’ve tried to convince my family that the traditional French cherry flan known as clafoutis all over the world had traditionally been baked with the pits left in the cherries, because the pits were supposed to add that mysterious je ne sais quoi to the flavour of the dish. I’ve tried, to no avail. They still hate the pits in the clafoutis. 

This little gadget is the cherry lover’s best friend… (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

And I’ve tried freezing the cherries, pits and all, because it’s easier. But often you have to get rid of the pits anyway once you defrost the cherries to use in baking or cooking. So basically you’re just procrastinating and postponing a boring task when you dump them in the freezer like that.  

To stone or not to stone, that is the question. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

This summer, for the first time, I managed to convince myself to stone most of the cherries before storing them in the freezer. I had to stone quite a lot for a cherry semifreddo I wanted to attempt, so I thought, well, in for a penny, in for a pound. Or for a few pounds (of cherries) in this case. 

Semifreddo is one of my favourite summer desserts. Close to ice cream, but less work if you have neither a mechanical ice cream maker nor the time to manually stir the ice cream every few hours. (I don’t and I don’t.) And you can use the basic recipe of two eggs, 100 g of sugar and 250 ml of whipped cream, adding fruit or chocolate or vanilla or whatever your heart desires to make a delicious frozen dessert that will impress your guests more than it should if you consider how little effort it actually takes. 

Our first semifreddo of the summer. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

The only trick is to mix the eggs and the sugar in a dish that fits exactly on a casserole half-filled with boiling water over the lowest possible heat, without the dish touching the boiling water. Once you find the perfect fit, Bob’s your uncle and semifreddo is your fall-back dessert for easy summer entertaining. 

A slice of semifreddo with the last of last summer’s cherries preserved in alcohol. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

My cherry semifreddo was almost as big a hit as the cherry song that even Einstein liked. And thanks to the frozen cherries in the freezer, stoned with the help of a little kitchen gadget that is worth its weight in gold, I’ll be able to make more of this dessert once the short cherry season is over. Or I’ll use the cherries in smoothies, mixed with other fruit. Or in a sauce to serve with duck, because cherries and duck go together even better than the famous couple of orange and duck. Or in numerous other ways that I will no doubt discover before the end of summer. 

Because sometimes, for a brief moment, life really does feel like a bowl of cherries. You can refuse to take it serious, because it’s far too mysterious. DM/TGIFood

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