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Veneto is the third most important region in Italy in terms of the quantity of cherries produced. The others are Puglia and Campania. Over 15 varieties are cultivated in the IGP district. They are harvested from the end of May to the end of June. The Festa della ciliegia, Sandra, Italy (Sandra Cherry Festival) is held during the first or second weekend of June (check the tourist office for exact dates). Last year we visited Montebelluna during June and feasted on beautiful cherries for breakfast and picked them off the trees at our hotel during the day as we enjoyed our afternoons at the pool.
The climate is suited to viniculture and orchards are grown along side the vineyards producing peaches, kiwi, plums, apples, and apricots and of course cherries. Marostica cherries are large, deep in color, sweet and firm. During this time of year you can stop and buy large baskets of them in stands alongside the road.
This region is well known for the Prosecco vineyards but also for Grappa. The Poli Distillery has a museum with the history of distillation of Grappa in Bassano del Grappa where we made it a point of tasting Grappa. We tried some unusual ones such as chocolate, coffee and strawberry Grappas. I found them a little sweet and preferred the Mascato, Cabernet and Merlot Grappa.
Grappa has been made commercially since the eighteenth century. A colorless, high-alcohol eau de vie is distilled from pomace-the residue (grape skins and seeds) left in the wine press after the juice is removed for wine. There are hundreds of highly individual, markedly different styles of Grappa, which have wonderful character and depth. The flavor is determined by the variety of grapes used. There are also aged Grappas, some so complex that they’re aged in a series of different woods including acacia, oak, birch, and juniper. The ultimate Grappa is a golden-colored. Grappa usually is about 40% alcohol. In Italy it can be found at 90º alcohol.
Living in a wine growning region, we see piles of grape skins ready to be distilled at the end of the grape harvest. Often the distilation column is set up along side the winery and we have even seen them along roadsides where locals can bring their grape skins to be distilled. Many people make their own liquors at home from lemoncello to fruits put up in liquor such as Ciliegie Sotto Spirito.
If you have never had Ciliegie Sotto Spirito, you are in for a treat. It is very easy to make and serving a few cherries in a large brandy glass along with the beautiful red colored Grappa to friends after a dessert as a special treat adds a very lovely touch to end of dinner. I use Grappa to make Ciliegie Sotto Spirito, but other liquors can be substituted.
Ciliegie Sotto Spirito
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 1/2 gallon
2 lbs. of fresh dark sweet cherries
4/5 quart Grappa, or other liquor of your choice
Distilled water, optional
OTHER THINGS NEEDED
1/2 gallon latched glass jar with a rubber gasket seal
Wash the cherries and remove the stones (removing the stones is optional; however I find that the absorption of liquor is better). On the other hand, the cherries will become mushy in time. If you want the cherries to hold their shape, do not remove the stones but crush the cherries slightly with the flat part of a knife. This will allow more absorption but they will hold their shape better.
Place the cherries in a large latched glass jar with a rubber gasket seal. Fill the jar with the Grappa leaving as little room for air as possible. Seal tightly and place it in a dark cool place.
If you want to reduce the strength, or to make it sweeter, add some sugar to the distilled water and heat it until the sugar has melted making sugar syrup and add it to the Grappa. With 40% alcohol this step is not necessary; however this is a matter of taste. The sweetness of the cherries is sufficient and the flavor is natural.
Allow the cherries and Grappa to stand for at least 4-8 weeks before drinking it. The longer you let it macerate, the stronger the taste will be and the pigments of the fruit will deepen the color.
Note: Pour into smaller bottles. Design your own label for your homemade Ciliegie Sotto Spirito. You will have a very special gift to give to friends and family.
Note: Other types of liquor can also be used such as high quality vodka, Kirsch, and brandy.