There is nothing like a warm weather sagra, and the annual cherry festival in the town of Lari (Sagra delle ciliegie a Lari) is a great excuse to get out and celebrate the season's sweetest bounty: cherries.
Located about 30 kilometres from Pisa, the hilltop town of Lari resonates strongly its medieval past and narrow winding streets that lead up to the Castello dei Vicari in the town centre. The castle will be open to visitors for the duration of the festival, so take advantage of a visit for the extraordinary views that stretch as far as the Livorno coast and the hills of Volterra.
The major attraction of the cherry festival in Lari, however, is the cherry market, which is set up both during the day and (after a short siesta) late into the night. Stalls line the base of the 700-year-old castle, showcasing fresh local cherries and other traditional culinary specialties.
Lari has cultivated cherries for centuries, but the fruit has only ever been grown in enough amounts for local consumption. This means that the only time you are likely to find and taste Lari's cherries are at this festival-one of Tuscany's oldest sagre. While the nineteen varieties of Lari's native cherries are rare these days, the market is abundant with the more popular varieties such as duroni neri(black cherries) and amarene or ciliegie visciole (sour cherries).
The local growers of the Pisan countryside and other stall holders also offer a dizzying array of produce, from honey to olive oil, and cherry delicacies such as cherry-studded pies, cakes, scarlet jams and cherry liqueurs. You can even find cherry-scented beer and a stunning fuchsia-coloured cherry vinegar.
But what makes the whole visit worthwhile is queuing up for a paper cone of piping hot frittelle di ciliegie. These little doughnut-hole fritters dotted with fresh cherries and covered in sugar are diligently handmade on the spot by a group of nonne who drop spoonfuls of dough into a giant pot of bubbling oil while the punters wait as patiently as they can for each fresh batch. Don't be afraid to grab a number and join the crowd.
While the sweet duroni neri are best eaten fresh, amarene, which live up to their name and are as sour as lemons, are best used in cooking or for conserving. Smaller than the plump dark cherries and with a very delicate, light vermilion-coloured skin, amarene are just as wonderful for making desserts, like crostate and sorbetto, as they are in savoury dishes, such as with duck.
If you get carried away and end up with too many cherries, follow the recipe I offer, which is a slight adaption of Pellegrino Artusi's easy preserving method for cherries in syrup from his 1891 cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. You can then keep the cherries for months to use throughout the year in other dessert recipes or spooned over gelato. The cinnamon is a wonderful optional addition, adding a hint of warm spice to the cherries.
Ciliegie Visciole In Guazzo (Preserved sour cherries in syrup)
1 kg of fresh sour cherries
300 grams of sugar
1 stick of cinnamon
Pick through the cherries, removing any that are bruised or split; rinse and pat dry.
De-stem the cherries and place 800 grams of them in sterilised glass jars.
Extract the juice of the remaining cherries by passing them through a food mill, deseeding and crushing through a strainer, or blending. Combine this juice with the sugar and add to the glass jars.
Add the cinnamon and seal the jars (depending on the type of jar and lid, you will usually have to boil the closed jars in a pot of water until they seal). Leave in a cool, dark place (the fridge is perfect) for at least 2 months or until the cherries have sunk to the bottom of the jars before using.
The 55th Cherry Festival in Lari runs for the weekend of May 28 to May 29, the holiday of June 2, and June 4 to 5 in the historic centre of Lari (Pisa). For more information, download the flyer (in Italian) at http://bit.ly/JNCsVc.
Hours: Saturday from 4pm to 11pm (food stalls open at 7:30pm); Sunday and Thursday, June 2, from 10am to11pm (food stalls open at 12:30pm, then 7:30pm). Cherry-market stalls open at starting hour and during the night markets at 9:30pm.