Vishniak–I’m probably spelling it wrong–is sour cherries turned into a compote, a syrup, a soda (as in, Frank’s Cherry Vishniak from Philadelphia), or a cherry brandy.
How do I know, you ask. Ah–(and with the “Ah” I’m pulling a Dad and giving you the flavor of a particularly smug conversation he had explaining it all to me when I was 15 and had never heard of vishniak either). Because my mother’s father, as it turns out, had made a particularly fine cherry vishniak by accident, about 20 years before this story begins.
My Grandpa Abe came to the States in 1923 as a child from a harsh place whose main compensations were family, music, tea, Bessarabian grapes, and the cherry harvest. His family had survived the pogroms in the Ukraine, his father had survived being drafted into (probably the Tsar’s) army during the Bolshevik Revolution and decided that was enough already, and the family arrived on the last boat allowed to bring Jews into Ellis Island that year–sometime in August.
The family started out dirt-poor, with no English, stripped of everything by the old Russian and new Soviet border guards. And yet Grandpa ended up a doctor, head of internal medicine, energetic and cheerful, unusually beloved by the nurses in the ICU, and an avid world traveler in his later years (my grandmother was a little less thrilled, but a good sport and better at languages than he was).
Some time in the late 1950s, out on Long Island, a friend gave him a gift of sour cherries, which he quickly put up with sugar and vodka in a sterilized glass Mott’s prune juice jug (why, oh why did all four of my grandparents keep prune juice in the house? I never figured it out. They weren’t even out of their 50s when I was little, and I’m almost 50 now myself.)
But in any case Grandpa put the vishniak jug in a dark, quiet corner of the garage to mature for a couple of months and promptly forgot about it.
He and Grandma moved into a New York City apartment sometime in the mid-1960s, and then in the late 1970s, when I was 15, he retired and they moved back out to Long Island. My family came up to help them sort things out–and that’s where my dad started rooting around among the boxes in the garage and found a dust-caked jug with a faded Mott’s label and some dark reddish liquid and cloudy, lumpy slush at the bottom.
“Abe!” he said, horrified. “What are you doing keeping this old jar? And what the hell’s that stuff at the bottom?”
My dad had just spent at least an hour finding similarly dubious-looking treasures of neatly folded foil, rubber bands, wax paper, and other saved-up sundries that my ever-careful grandparents had paid good money to have moved back out of the New York apartment. Was this yet another such item meant to ward off the next Great Depression, or was Grandpa collecting surgical specimens for posterity?
My grandpa took one look at the cloudy jar and beamed–it had all come back. In true shtetl fashion, he uttered the magic word–“Ah!”–and with no further explanation, bustled around in the kitchen to find a couple of sherry glasses that weren’t too dusty. Dad wasn’t looking too thrilled.
In even truer shtetl fashion, Grandpa returned and promptly challenged my dad to a game of chess to celebrate. We kids were left baffled, but not for long–as the game was set out, we each got a tiny sip, and it was incredible.
It turned out that forgetting the cherry vishniak for 20 years or so was the best thing Grandpa could have done to it. When Grandpa opened the jar the vishniak aroma alone was so developed, so rich, that Dad just stopped kibbitzing in his tracks for a minute and inhaled reverently. The liqueur was a clear bright red–astonishing after 20 years–and at the bottom were all the brandied cherries. When it was time for us to leave, Grandpa filled us a little Paul Masson carafe (remember those?) with vishniak to take home.
Now, I don’t have the head for anything more than half an inch of wine–and that’s actually something I inherited from my dad more than my mom–but my local Armenian grocery was selling fresh sour cherries this summer and I managed to snag a box. What to do with them? I washed and stemmed them, then stuck them in the fridge until I figured it out.
This was not really a great move. They sat for at least 3 weeks in there–it’s a miracle more of them didn’t go moldy, but I lost quite a few when I finally opened the container today. The price you pay for dithering. I sorted them, washed the good ones really well and pitted them with a sharp little paring knife. But what now?
I have a bottle of vodka from years ago–still unopened, maybe I’ll use it next summer and put up some vishniak. But there aren’t enough cherries this time around. So I decided to try making a quick preserve the way I do with cranberries.
The raw cherries aren’t really that sour–they’re more bitter with a faint sweetness, like the wild unofficial and unrecognized variety that used to grow at the edges of the woods in the backyard when I was a kid in Virginia. But I decided to try them anyway.
I had a smallish bowlful–maybe a cup, cup and a half, of pitted cherries–and put a couple of tablespoons of sugar on them. Lemon–no lemons in the house. Citric acid “sour salt” I had in a shaker–you can get Rokeach brand in the Jewish section of your supermarket’s International Foods aisle, next to the Telma bouillon cubes and the unsold jars of Manischewitz gefilte fish from last Passover. But a little goes a long way–one modest shake was plenty.
Then–you won’t be entirely surprised at this, but I covered the bowl with a saucer and nuked it for 3 minutes on HIGH. It didn’t gel–I think you need a lot more sugar to make it gel without adding pectin–but it did make some liquid, and the smell–I’d taken all the pits out carefully before microwaving, but there was still a distinctly almondy smell when I moved the lid a little. Powerful stuff.
A tiny taste–heady and bursting with cherries. With more sugar, more cherries, and a bottle of vodka to add it to, in 20 years it might be worth talking about. But in my house it’s not gonna last that long.
I’ve learned my lesson–if you’ve got something rare like fresh sour cherries at a good price, get with it and use them right away. You can freeze them after you pit them, or you can cook them–or put them up with sugar and vodka, though I don’t think Mott’s is still issuing its juices in glass jugs, more’s the pity. The main thing is to act swiftly, and if anyone gives you trouble, threaten them to a game of chess.