May and June is cherry season in Italy, and during our cycling tours we’ve been spotting cherry trees laden with fruit from Trentino down throughout the Veneto. I’ve written earlier about the renowned cherries of Marostica, but what makes the food scene here so fascinating are the little pockets of micro climates that each produce a very specific variety with its own unique characteristics and flavors. In Italy there are over 30 varieties of cherries that are cultivated. The ‘hometown’ favorite may only be found within an area of a couple of miles. Their arrival each spring will be celebrated by a local festival, known as a Sagra or Festa, and the town’s restaurants will feature many recipes using the cherries for the couple of weeks they are available.
One of our favorite areas for cycling is the Berici Hills, just south of Vicenza. Besides their own wine DOC, and peas, mushrooms, black truffles, honey and olive oil, we pass through a couple of small areas which right now are bursting with cherries; trees bearing the fruit, and the local farmers out with their makeshift roadside stands with signs “Vendita Ciliegie”, Buy Cherries.
Here in the Berici Hills, the cherry orchards are in the south-east, at the foot of limestone cliffs, between the plain and the slopes of Mount Castellaro. The terrain is characterized by rocky outcrops and a limited topsoil layer. The steep slopes provide intense sun exposure, causing the fruit to ripen early.
The hamlet of Castegnero is the center of production, with a long history of cultivation of their specific variety, known as the Mora di Castegnero (the Castegnero blackberry). In early spring, the trees are thick with flowers, and the resulting fruit is tender and dark, with a high sugar content. The “Festa dea Siaresa” is their cherry festival held in late May and early June. Visitors can purchase cherries and cherry products from vendors while enjoying entertainment, and feasting on traditional dishes and Colli Berici wines at local restaurants.
Just a couple of kilometers away, as we tour through the hamlets of Sarego and Meledo we find another variety of cherry, the Mora Cazzano, known as Durone di Verona elsewhere. Here the slopes are lower, the soil deeper, and the more limited sun exposure causes the fruit to ripen slightly later. This fruit is a bright red, and crunchy, with a very sweet flavor.
During cherry season, cherries appears in all types of dishes from salads to savory to desserts. The following recipe I’ve translated from an Italian cookbook containing 40 recipes all featuring cherries from the Veneto.
Quaglie con Ciliegie – Quail with Cherries
The Italian version notes that the original recipe called for the use of the blackbirds, but as they are now hard to find, it has substituted quail. It assures us it will still be great.
6 ounces cherries, pitted
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
4 ounces pancetta, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons butter, divided
Stuff each quail with two pitted cherries, about 1/2 tablespoon of butter eah, salt and pepper.
Wrap each quail with the thin slices of pancetta, holding in place with kitchen twine if necessary.
Melt the remaining butter in a large saute pan over medium high heat, and wheh hot, sear the quail on all sides.
Turn down the heat to medium, add the remaining cherries and the grappa. Flame the grappa with a lighter, then cook until the quails are cooked through, about 5 to 10 minutes depending on their size.
Served immediately on a hot plate, garnish with the remaining cherries and sauce.