Still Time for Cherries!

August is here! Much of Paris has emptied for the vacation season, but no matter where they’re spending their vacances, the French are still taking advantage of an extended cherry season.

The fruit showed up late this year: with all the frost and rain we had in the spring, May quickly (and literally) dissolved into June. Then, finally, both sweet and sour varieties began appearing on market stalls everywhere.

How to eat cherries, the French way

Cherries are wonderful eaten on their own, with no preparation necessary. But do you know how to eat cherries the polite French way? No one need see your tongue when you spit the pit into your hand! Have a look at the right (French) way to do it here!

Hi! I’m Allison, and I’m an Edutainer working in French food, culture, history, and art. If you’re a gastro-curious traveler or learner, I’m here to show you the A to Z of French food and culture!

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In France, cherry season, or le temps des cerises, is traditionally in May. But it’s also the name of a well-known song, which everyone over a certain age can hum when they hear it.

What’s a commune?

The song Le temps des cerises is almost always associated with revolution and socialism, and more particularly the Commune of Paris in 1871. The word commune in French is a little confusing to anglophones everywhere, because it has nothing to do with our English-language homonym. If you’re thinking of hippies living off the land and smoking da weed (as it’s called in French nowadays), here’s your chance to understand two French definitions of the word.
One practical definition: a commune is a little like a county. For example, my country house in Burgundy is located in the commune of Bœurs en Othe, but it’s not actually in the village of that name. Only a handful of the commune’s 342 inhabitants actually live in the village. We’re way out on the edge of the “county” in a hamlet. So our address is still the commune of Bœurs en Othe, which is in the Yonne département, in the region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. Below you can see maps of the départements and régions of France.
The départements of France. Image: Nilstilar, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The regions of France. Image: France Pub.

The Paris Commune: burning down the palace

But the Commune of Paris is something different altogether! In the spring of 1871, a temporary social-democratic government, led by the mostly working-class National Guard, rebelled against the official French regime. The working-class Parisian communards, as they were known, heralded mainly from eastern Parisian neighborhoods like Belleville and Ménilmontant, among others. Radical socialists, anarchists, communists, feminists, and even female arsonists (pétroleuses) made up a majority of this motley crew of communards. They’re all still celebrated today in the 20th district.
Battles over cannons in Paris, barricades, the toppling of the column in the Place Vendôme (painter Gustave Courbet’s idea!), and the burning of the Tuileries Palace and the Hôtel de Ville were all “highlights” of the Commune de Paris.
A banner placed near the Père Lachaise cemetery in the 20th this spring quotes Jules Vallès, a left-wing political activist during The Commune: “The poppy harvest shivers!”

Bittersweet experience

By the end of May 1871, the last holdouts in Paris were in Belleville and next to the Père Lachaise cemetery, which is why this past May, banners all around my neighborhood commemorated the 150th  anniversary of the Commune. Of course, this is a very short summary of a subject on which many books have been written, and history buffs might want to read more details of the Paris Commune in Wikipedia or these articles from France24 and The New Yorker.
Back to cherry season! The composer of the song Le temps des cerises, Jean-Baptiste Clément, was a communard, but he wrote the song before the uprising, in 1866. The lyrics evoke the pleasures of springtime, first love, joy, and perhaps the bittersweet experience of first love lost. It was only after the Commune of 1871 that the words were attributed to the fight.
Different varieties of cherries at French markets.

Sweet or savory?

The only fighting necessary right now is a mental battle. Deciding which delicious French recipe to use to take advantage of cherry season is a struggle indeed! In France, sweet recipes for cherries abound: clafoutis, tarts, jams and jellies, ice creams and sorbets, flan, black forest cake, or even rice pudding are all wonderful ways to use one of the season’s best fruit.

Winning combinations like simple fromage blanc or just plain yogurt are popular, too. But how about savory recipes that use cherries? Their not-to-sweet and almost almond-like flavor works well in pâtés, like a duck pâté with pistachios and cherries, or with fatty, roasted meats. Hands down, my favorite savory cherry recipe is for roasted duck breast. Find the recipe below! And happy August.

Pan-Roasted Duck Breast with Cherries

For this recipe, the best kind of cherry to use is a tart or sour cherry, like the Morello or Montmorency varieties. Fresh or pitted frozen cherries will work fine, but steer clear of jarred or canned cherries, which are mushy and sweet.

The sweetness in the recipe’s sauce comes from the gastrique, which is essentially a caramel base to which you add liquids like wine (or here, liqueur) and stock. The sauce complements the duck breast to create a mouth-watering French sweet and savory dish.

ingredients:

– 1 tablespoon olive oil

– 2 duck breasts

for the gastrique sauce:

– 2 tablespoons (25 g) sugar

– 1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons (25 g) red wine vinegar

– 2 tablespoons (30 ml) cherry kirsch or other red-fruit liqueur

– 2 cups (475 ml) duck or chicken stock

– scant 1½ cups (320 g) fresh pitted cherries, or 1¼ cups (190 g) frozen cherries, thawed

– fine sea salt and pepper, as needed

– 1-2 tablespoons (15-30 g) butter (optional)

how to make it:

  1. Prepare the duck breasts by trimming away extra fat, pin feathers, and silverskin. Slash the fat on the top in a criss-cross pattern, using a sharp knife, taking care not to cut into the meat itself.
  2. Preheat the oven to 430°F (220°C). Make the gastrique base by combining the sugar and vinegar in a small saucepan. Bring to the boil over medium heat, swirling the mixture, and then lower the heat. Watch it carefully once you smell a caramel-y odor. Once the mixture becomes quite thick, add the kirsch or liqueur. Stir well with a whisk until you have a smooth mixture. Remove from heat.
  3. In a sautoir or any oven-resistant saucepan, heat the olive oil on the stovetop over medium-high heat. Brown the duck breast, skin side down, for 3-4 minutes – the skin should look brown and crispy. Turn it over, then immediately put it into the oven. Roast for 10-12 minutes.
  4. Remove the duck from the oven. Transfer the breast to a warm plate, and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Degrease the sautoir or saucepan using a spoon, leaving the meat juices, and place the pan back on the stovetop on medium heat. Deglaze with (add) the stock, bringing to the boil and scraping up the brown bits on the bottom. Add the gastrique base to this sauce.
  5. If using fresh cherries, add half of them now to the sauce. If using frozen cherries, strain them, discarding the juice, and add half of them to the sauce as it boils down. Continue to boil for about 5-8 minutes.
  6. When the sauce starts to thicken, taste and adjust the seasoning, adding salt and pepper as necessary. Add the rest of the cherries and continue to reduce until the sauce is syrupy.
  7. Slice the duck into ½-inch slices (12 mm). If there are any juices left underneath, add them to the sauce.
  8. Remove the sauce from the heat. If you like, whisk a bit of butter into the sauce, taste, and serve over the duck breasts. Voilà!

makes 4 servings