To my culinary curious mind, knowing where food comes from and how it behaves chemically is just as important as knowing some of the history behind it. I have mental snapshots of French chefs hard at work in smoky and sooty kitchens, shepherds making cheese, the happenstance of a discovery out of necessity or sheer luck.
I look at a food and, if I don’t know much about it, I go digging. A friend asked me where I dig and the answer is a mixture of reference books, old recipe books and the “trusted” internet, where I usually cross-reference information for more accuracy. Wikipedia is helpful where it comes to botany but no so much with history.
Certain foods are inextricably linked to name brands and most brands hide a family behind it. The jar of Maraschino Cherries a friend kindly gave me was looking at me tonight when I realized that my knowledge of how Maraschino cherries are made was foggy at best.
In the US, Maraschino cherries are those bright red/pink or shockingly green globes floating in drinks, vaguely related to cherries. An urban myth prevented me early on from eating them – word got around they were preserved in formaldehyde and could not be digested. Not quite, as it turns out. The cherries are actually preserved in sodium metabisulfate, calcium chloride and citric acid and subsequently dyed those alarming shades of red and green. It might not be formaldehyde but since I have known how they are actually made, I have had even more reasons not to eat them.
In Italy, Maraschino (pronounced Maa-ra-skee-no) are Marasca cherries preserved in syrup and typically eaten over ice-cream. But what I did not know is that Maraschino cherries are not, strictly speaking, of Italian descent.
It all started in Zara where Maraschino cherries were closely linked to one family. The Luxardo family to be exact. Zara is a seaside city in Dalmatia (former Yugoslavia) that, for seven centuries, was part of the Venetian Republic. After the fall of Venice by the hand of Napoleon, Zara and Dalmatia were annexed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and it was right at the end of the 18th century that the wife of Girolamo Luxardo, Maria, started toying with the home production of what was called “Rosolio Maraschino”, a liquor distilled from the local Marasca cherries and made in monasteries since the Middle Ages. Maria’s liquor garnered so many fans among Girolamo’s friends that the old man thought of producing it on a larger scale. The Luxardo factory was built and it flourished, passed down from generation to generation, until World War II, when, during the Allied bombing in 1943 most of Zara was destroyed, and the Luxardo factory with it.
A year later, the partisans of Marshall Tito invaded Dalmatia and went on a killing spree. The entire Luxardo family was wiped out, most of them drowned in the sea they looked at every day. All perished but for one brother, Giorgio, who escaped to Italy and settled down near Padova where he vowed to start the activity all over again, in 1947, with the family recipe. Today, on the Luxardo website, there is a photo of Giorgio and his descendents who still hold the factory in family hands.
Back to the cherries in the jar: they are Marasca cherries, a deep shade of aubergine, preserved in cherry juice and Maraschino liquor. If you come across them in a specialty shop, don’t pass them by. Treat yourself, pour them on vanilla ice cream or on a pudding and you will see they don’t share many genes with the formaldehyde variety. And spare a thought for Maria Luxardo who started it all.