Hungarian Sour Cherry Soup
Taken at face value, Prunus might be assumed to have something to do with prunes. However, in actuality, all stone fruits are members of Prunus. Of course, plums (and future prunes) are members of the genus, but Prunus avium and Prunus cerasus happen to be cherries.
Cherries are unusual in having their point of origin described as an entire hemisphere—the northern one. Since prehistoric times, cherries have grown across Europe, Asia, and North America. It seems that most of the cultivated species came from western Asia and eastern Europe, but there were varieties everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, waiting to be crossbred. Unusual among domesticated plant foods with long histories, the wild precursors of cultivated cherries have not been lost, and in fact have not been abandoned. Wild cherries still enjoy wide popularity.
While the use of wild cherries stretches back through prehistory, the cultivation of cherries is believed to date to about 300 BC Our word cherry comes from the Turkish town of Cerasus, which reflects the western Asian origin of cherry cultivation and can also be seen unchanged in the name of one species of cherry. Like many other words (pease, kudos, eaves), the nearest linguistic ancestor of the English word—cherise—sounded too much like it was plural, and in time became cherry.
The Roman Empire being what it was—an absorber of all it liked from wherever it went—it is probably not too surprising that Italy became a major cherry grower during the time of the Empire. Pliny attributes the introduction of cherries to the Roman general Lucullus, though it seems likely that Lucullus probably simply introduced a new species of cultivated cherry when he returned from fighting in Asia Minor. However, while we know that there were cherries being cultivated in Italy by the time of Lucullus (117‑around 56 BC), we also know that cultivation was a relatively new thing in the Mediterranean at this point, as the Greeks wrote only of wild cherries, which they didn’t particularly like.
Cherries favor temperate regions. While they don’t like it too frigid, they won’t bloom at all without a cold winter. And for some species of cherry, it’s all about blooming. Almost none of the ornamental species favored in Asia, and most particularly Japan, bear fruit, or if they do bear fruit, it is inedible. They are grown entirely for their beautiful flowers. It is from among these purely decorative Japanese species that Washington, D. C. got its famous blossoming cherries (and, unfortunately, it was from this same gift from Japan’s government that the Oriental fruit moth was introduced into the U.S.).
While there are many species of cherry, there are two main species that are grown for their fruit: sweet cherries (Prunus avium) and sour cherries (Prunus cerasus). In addition, there are cherries known as dukes, which are crosses between sweet and sour cherries. (The Germans call dukes Bastardkirschen.) Sweet cherries are heart-shaped, range in color from purplish black to red to golden, and include all the common eating cherries.
Sour cherries are smaller, softer, and more spherical than sweet cherries. They are also known as tart cherries, cooking cherries, and pie cherries. While some people do enjoy eating sour cherries fresh, most people agree that they benefit from cooking, usually with sugar. But they are wonderfully flavorful in a wide range of applications, from jams to pies to this wonderful sour cherry soup from Hungary. While this soup is enjoyed through the summer months, because sour cherries are the earliest of the spring fruits, this soup is often associated with spring festivals and, among Hungary’s Jewish community, is a favorite for Shavuot. This soup has a wonderful, sweet-tart flavor. Served cold, it makes a refreshing first course on a warm day. Enjoy.
(Hungarian Sour Cherry Soup)
6 cups water
zest of ½ lemon
1 stick cinnamon
1 lb. sour cherries, pitted (see note)
¾ cup sugar
3 Tsp. flour
1 cup sour cream
½ tsp. salt
Put water, lemon zest, and cinnamon stick in a large pot and bring to the boil. Add cherries and sugar, stir, and simmer for 10‑20 minutes, or until cherries are tender. Remove cinnamon stick. In a separate bowl, combine flour, salt, and sour cream, and beat until smooth. Ladle about a cup of the hot cherry liquid into the sour cream mixture, and stir vigorously to combine. Then pour the sour cream mixture into the soup pot and stir well to combine with cherry soup. Simmer for an additional 5 or 6 minutes, until the soup begins to thicken. Cover the soup. Let it cool for a while before putting it in the refrigerator, then chill, still covered, until chilled through. (Soup will discover a “skin” if you don’t cover the pot.) Serve cold.
While the ideal is to use fresh sour cherries, these are not always available. Frozen is the second choice, and canned is your third option (even though some recipes state “never use canned”). If you don’t have a handy purveyor of sour cherries (and they are by no means ubiquitous), you may have no other choice than canned — and that’s okay. Just make sure you’re getting sour or tart cherries and that the ingredients list reads “cherries, water.” Don’t get anything with sugar, flavoring, other fruit, or syrup, and don’t get sweet cherries. When you drain the canned cherries, save the liquid from the can and use it as part of the water you’re using for the soup—gives you a little flavor boost. You might want to use a few more cherries, too, if you’re not using fresh, and especially if you’re using canned.