Sour Cherry Jam
A scene from my childhood keeps visiting me in my dreams as an adult: I am sitting at the dining room table on a Saturday evening with my aunts and uncles. My mom is walking towards the table with a engraved silver tray carrying almost a dozen crystal tea glasses, filled to the brim with piping hot liquid.
As the tea is distributed, everyone around me spoons globs of sour cherry jam into their glasses. The cherries, pit intact, drop into the tea in slow motion, muddying up the liquid as they descend to the bottom of the glass.
I can't stop staring at them as they drown in the tea, the chatter of a large extended family providing the soundtrack. Instead of putting the sour cherries in my tea, I pop them in my mouth and take a big sip of tea over them, the taste permanently leaving its mark in my memory.
This scene played out in Los Angeles the same way it would have in Tehran, where I was born. Except instead of practically everyone I was related to being in the capital of Iran surrounded by its overwhelming car traffic, they were thousands of miles away in Southern California, surrounded well, by overwhelming car traffic.
We came to the U.S as refugees, escaping political turmoil and war, reoccurring themes within the Armenian story no matter where your family is from.
The sour cherry is another reoccurring theme, the kind of food that unifies a disjointed diaspora scattered across the entire world.
The cherry is said to have originated from the Black Sea city of Giresun in modern day Turkey which was once called Kerasous. Kerasous was home to Greek and Armenian populations before the genocide.
The sour cherry comes from more or less same region. The book, "Genetics, Genomics and Breeding of Stone Fruits" edited by Chittaranjan Kole and Albert G. Abbott cites the sour cherry as native to the area south of the Black and Caspian Seas, including modern Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Armenians have been eating, preserving and using sour cherries in dishes forever. One famous Armenian dish that made its way into Syrian cuisine (and specifically in the food of Aleppo) is Kebab Bil Karaz or Cherry Kebab, made of lamb and sour black cherry. The most widely circulated Armenian cookbook in America, "Treasured Armenian Recipes" includes sour cherry instructions and was first published in Detroit in 1949.
It's when the memory of sour cherry preserves and tea resurfaced again that I was inspired to research the origins and culture around the fruit. Being in Michigan helped too. The Mitten, as its locally known, grows over 75 percent of the country's sour cherries. I've been obsessed with the trials and tribulations Michigan sour cherry production for the last year and hoping to report on it soon, but the sour cherry history and the geographical proximity led to a weekend of sour cherry jam making after I ransacked a couple markets in Detroit, finally finding them in the last week of their season.
While the bottom three cartons are pure sour cherry (Balaton), the top two are a hybrid sour and sweet cherry, developed in Michigan about 10 years ago.
In addition to using the recipe from "Treasured Armenian Recipes," I called (who else) my mom. She sent over her own version and adlibbed a few jam making tips. I spent a couple of thumb numbing hours manually de-pitting cherries, but the recipe seemed fool proof - I'll just chuck a bunch of cherries in a pot, pour some sugar on top and let the good times roll.
This did not happen. Not even a bit.
Sour cherries, as I found out, are a low pectin fruit, which means that they don't really turn in to true thick jam when just combined with sugar. They need the naturally occurring substance, pectin. Lemon - which has a lot of pectin, is probably what your grandmother used during her jam making process, but today, you can buy pectin in a jar.
But lemon, like the recipe instructed didn't help. Adding more sugar didn't help. Taking the cherries out and cooking the water left over didn't help.
I finally grated in an apple, a high pectin fruit. That's what saved it. I also added in a cap full of Armenian brandy.
I made eight jars and remain convinced that Middle Eastern cookbooks (much like Middle Eastern moms who lure you home with their food) leave out the tips and tricks needed for recipes to be successful on purpose. Here's a recipe, the book says, but I'm not giving up my secrets, you've got to keep coming back for more.
Sour Cherry Jam
2 lbs. of fresh sour cherries, pitted.
1 to 1.5 cups sugar
3-4 tablespoons of pectin + the juice of a lemon (for flavor) + one peeled apple
A couple tablespoons of Armenian Brandy
Cover the cherries with sugar and leave overnight in a pot. In the morning, grate the peeled apple, add lemon and pectin and with pot on medium heat, cook cherries. Remove pink foam if it forms (it will cloud up your jam) occasionally and cook until the syrup is a thick consistency. I couldn't tell you when it turns thick, but you'll know when it does, and when it does, remove from heat. Laddle into sterilized jars.