Food 4 Thought – Issue #10 – Basque in Black

Basque Cherries

In Order to Save this Endangered Cherry, You Must Eat This Endangered Cherry

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, you’re aware that a debate is raging over climate change. Whether you’re a believer or a denier, you’d have to acknowledge that if climate change is real, we’re all going to have to make some sacrifices to turn things around. Everyone has a solution: turn off the lights, don’t run the water while you brush your teeth, no more coal, no more fracking, trade in your gas-guzzler for an electric car, reusable straws, cloth diapers. And if we don’t make these sacrifices, the plant and wildlife population will suffer first. But what if you could do your part to save a species by eating more of it?

During the month of August, we’re celebrating all things Basque at Di Bruno Bros. From archaic styles of cheese to espelette pepper-infused jelly, from Cantabrian anchovies to piparras peppers, if it’s Basque, it’s on our counters for the month. The star of the show might be the Basque Cherry Confit, which is made from an indigenous variety that is dwindling by the year. But it’s not suffering because of climate change or over-harvesting, and the best way to save it, paradoxically, is to eat it.

 

A Celebrated Ingredient with One Fatal Flaw

The Black Basque Cherry is pretty close to the perfect fruit. It bears a beautiful hue of deep, dark red, a sweet flavor balanced with a hint of tang, and a large flesh-to-pit ratio. The star ingredient of Gateau Basque and Clafoutis, the Basque Cherry is also great on cheese, ice cream or seared duck breast. If this cherry has a flaw, it’s that it is low-yielding, which creates fiscal challenges for the farmer. As a result, despite their revered status in French cuisine, the trees were uprooted and replaced with higher-yielding, less-flavorful varieties.

How close are they to extinction? A census from 2018 reported that three tons were harvested. Compare that to the 1920 census, which reported three hundred tons, and simple math will tell you that we’ve lost 99% of the Black Basque Cherry in just one century. Even three hundred tons is relatively little, considering that in 2016 Washington State harvested over 210,000 tons. So three tons is virtually nothing at all.

To ensure that none of it goes to waste, what cannot be consumed fresh is preserved confit-style. Cooked down in their own juices with a little sugar, lemon juice and pectin, they can last years without preservatives, and they maintain their characteristic flavor profile. This cherry confit is our discovery of the month.

Why do we love it?

This is not your ordinary cherry jam. Instead of an amalgamated blend of cherries and sugar, this jar is filled with whole cherries (pits removed) stewed in cherry juice with a pinch of sugar. Lemon juice and pectin are the only other ingredients, and only in the small amounts needed to prevent it from spoiling. It is my go-to pairing for one of my favorite cheeses, Ossau-Iraty, upon which it tastes warm and comforting like toast on Sunday morning.

We’ve been both thanked and warned that without our support, the producer – a small, family-owned operator in the town of Itxassou – might succumb to the pressure of the economy and replace his trees with more profitable ones. If he can’t make a living selling the Black Basque Cherry, he’ll have to stop growing it, and if that happens, it will be one step closer to extinction.

How can you help?

In many, many delicious ways. Of course, our mongers love it on several styles of cheese, including most sheep milk cheeses (Ossau-Iraty, Manchego 1605) and blue cheeses (Chiriboga and Colston Bassett Stilton especially). But here are a few more things that highlight this noble ingredient:

1)      Duck Breast: sear until the skin is crispy, then glaze with the cherry juice and top with a few cherries just before serving.

2)      Vanilla ice cream: simply spoon over top, perhaps with some crushed pistachios.

3)      Champagne: add a single cherry and a teaspoon of juice to the flute before filling with bubbly.

4)      Cocktails: swap out that maraschino cherry with one of these jewels in your next Manhattan.

5)      Scones: mix with mascarpone and top your breakfast biscuit.

6)      Waffles: top with whipped cream, then pile on the cherries.

7)      Cheesecake: Just smother that slice with the whole jar.

Check out previous issues of Food 4 Thought:

PITCHFORK CHEDDAR

Pitchfork Cheddar

BLACK GARLIC MOLASSES

TRUFF HOT SAUCE

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Hunter is a Di Bruno lifer. For as long as he can remember, his mom brought him into the cramped, aromatic Italian Market location as a weekly ritual. Before graduating high school, he was working behind the counter, slicing prosciutto, and making the famed cheese spreads in twenty pound batches.

He now serves as head cheese monger, and he has had the distinct pleasure of traveling the world with Emilio, honing his palate over countless dinners, trainings, and trade shows.

In Food 4 Thought, Hunter’s mission is to share our favorite discoveries while addressing the impact they have beyond the culinary world. We believe that the best foods have a story to tell. They’re crafted with consciousness; they honor the past with an eye towards the future. These are the products we’re most proud to have on our shelves, and the producers we’re most passionate about supporting.

Please comment on the blog. Come talk to a monger. Cook for friends and family. Come join the conversation!

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