Amarena cherries have been gathering a bit of buzz in recent years. Not the meteoric rise to stardom of the gourmet food world, but rather the quiet entrenchment into the map. These deep dark red wild cherries have become a little sign most people don’t look out for, but those in the know feel pleased when encountering them. When you find a spot that has one (or two, or three) of Amarena cherries on top of the ice cream, or the cheesecake, or as cocktail garnish - it’s a spot worth coming back to.
For most of the world, it’s a food trend. We’ve seen more than a few in recent years. Trends tend to pop up and disappear in the blink of an eye, and none faster than in the culinary world.
But some food trends are here to stay. Think cream cheese and lox on a bagel, a food so ubiquitously beloved that few care about its history. Think avocado toast, once little more than a meme used to denigrate millennials, and now a mainstay breakfast option in most metropolitan cities worldwide. Think matcha latte, little thought of a decade and a half ago, and one of the trendiest drinks now, with the popularity that isn’t letting up.
If you look a little deeper, you’ll notice all the foods that start as trends but manage to become mainstream have one crucial thing in common: they have broad appeal and long history. Neither lox, nor avocados, nor matcha have been trends for communities with a long history of using these ingredients as staples in their cuisines. They were simply packaged in a way that attracted buzz. There's a reason they’ve remained strong after their “5 minutes of fame” were supposedly up. And that’s because people found the taste appealing.
That’s the key to the quiet success of Amarena cherries as well. While their takeover has been on the down-low and nigh-unmentioned, those in the food industry have long known the name. Amarena cherries have maintained a steady hold on the Italian market since 1905, when a small company established by Gennaro Fabbri started commercially packaging and selling them, slowly but surely earning itself the reputation of the most luxurious type of cherry.
Does it deserve its enduring popularity in Italy and steadily growing buzz around the rest of the world? Let’s find out.
What are Amarena cherries?
Very strictly speaking, Amarena cherries are a sort of wild cherries from the Prunus cerasus family. If you know a bit about your desserts and cocktails, you’d recognize that as the same family Morello cherries belong to. The same cherries that were initially used to make maraschino cherries.
Suitably, they share a lot of similarities with morello cherries. They’re a little smaller than sweet cherries (between 13mm and 20mm) and have a tart, acidic taste. Fittingly, in Italian, “amara” means bitter.
Despite multiple companies dipping their fingers in manufacturing Amarena cherries, and other amarena cherry-based products (pastries, jams, vinegar, etc.), Fabbri Amarena cherries remain the most iconic. And deservedly so since it was the Fabbri company founder who developed the Amarena cherry variety.
The tale goes that when Gennaro Fabbri’s wife Richele came to own a wild cherry orchid along with the store she took over, she started cooking them with sugar in copper pots. Gennaro enjoyed the treat so much that he started experimenting with the cherries, developing the new variety that would later become known as Amarena.
Even the white and blue “pots” the Fabbri Amarena cherries are packed in today are a throwback to this story. The tale goes that Gennaro bought a white and blue ceramic jar from Faenzan artist Riccardo Gatti as a thank you for Richele.
The company has dramatically expanded since then and became one of the best-known names in Italy, but Fabbri Amarena cherries remain the flagship product to this day.
These days, however, when people mention Amarena cherries, they likely aren’t referring to the cherry variety itself. They refer to the final product - the cherries that have been already preserved in syrup, packaged, and hit the shelves.
How are Amarena cherries made?
The process of making Amarena cherries is simple but takes time. Once the cherries have been picked and thoroughly cleaned, they are submerged in syrup made with water, sugar, and citric acid, along with (sometimes) additional colorants and stabilizers. The cherries are kept in airtight containers for at least a month to ensure they reach the right flavor strength while retaining their texture.
At the end of the preservation process, you have a cherry that’s still firm in texture but hasn’t gone hard if everything has gone right. Instead, the cherries should remain tender and juicy on the inside but without falling apart once someone bites into them.
What do Amarena cherries taste like?
Amarena cherries, if preserved correctly, are a great balance of sour and sweet. The syrup should retain some of the cherries’ acidity without going overly sugary. Still, instead of the cutting sourness of raw fruit, the flavor you get is more complex, starting sweet and only hitting you with sour undertones.
This flavor profile is one of the significant reasons that has pushed bartenders of the world to the forefront of the Amarena cherry rise movement. They've slowly yet surely started to switch to Amarena cherries when choosing garnishes for their cocktails.
Their sweet-and-sour taste pairs well with most spirits with distinct yet neutral flavors (such as rum, tequila, vodka, or whiskey) all on their own but can also accentuate sweeter flavors from oft-used flavored cocktail syrups (such as citrus, vanilla and chocolate).
The complex but pleasant flavor of Amarena cherries has also endeared itself to most bakers who’ve made use of them.
Not to mention, as of right now, Amarena cherries are in a quiet but vicious fight with maraschino cherries for the title of top dessert garnish.
What’s the difference between Amarena cherries and Maraschino cherries?
When we mentioned sweet preserved cherries, used as a cocktail garnish, did maraschino cherries pop up in your mind?
We can’t blame you. Maraschino cherries are such a common cocktail garnish that “cocktail cherries” is their unofficial name. And who hasn’t caught an image of glimmering red maraschino cherries garnishing ice cream sundaes and whipped cream-covered milkshakes from various movies and cartoons?
Yet, somehow Amarena cherries have become regarded as the high-class, luxurious alternative to maraschino cherries. The ones that demarcate the divide between gourmet and common food.
Interestingly, Maraschino cherries and Amarena cherries have a lot in common. The Maraschino liqueur (which got them the name) was made with marasca cherries, a morello cherry variety of Croatian origins. The original Maraschino cherries were the whole marasca cherries preserved in the liqueur.
In the 19th century, maraschino cherries became so popular across Europe that there was a need to substitute for marasca cherries due to their scarcity. From then on, most cherries preserved in liqueur were referred to as maraschino.
However, the modern Maraschino Cherry has less in common with its ancestor and more with the Amarena cherry. It, too, contains no alcohol and is usually preserved in sugar syrup.
And here comes the crucial difference. Maraschino cherries seldom taste like cherries at all. Over the years, the manufacturers have become more concerned with its iconic appearance rather than its taste. They’re basically cherry-shaped candies rather than candied cherries.
Modern maraschino cherries aren’t even made with morello cherries anymore. Instead, manufacturers use one of the light-colored sweet cherry varieties (Royal Ann, Gold, and Rainier are common choices). They’re further bleached in brine containing sulfur dioxide and calcium chloride and then given their bright red color via food coloring.
The cherry tastes more like sugar syrup than a cherry by the end of the process.
With the current gourmet food trends turned towards natural tastes and the value of traditional flavors, it’s no wonder that items such as Fabbri Amarena Cherries, with their 100+ year history, are garnering more and more attention, while maraschino cherries are starting to get looked down on.
(Which is a shame, by the way, because there are manufacturers out there like Luxardo, who’ve been putting high-quality maraschino cherries on the market for over a century and can easily compete with Fabbri Amarena cherries in the taste department. Unfortunately, the prevalent practice of stripping most maraschino cherries of their flavor has done them a disservice).
What to use Amarena cherries for:
We’ve mentioned a few times that using Amarena cherries as garnishes - primarily for cocktails - is the most popular option these days. If you’re planning a house party and want to add more flair to your home-mixed cocktails, skewer two or three Fabbri amarena cherries together, garnish your cocktail, and it will instantly earn you a few extra points.
You don’t even need to mix cocktails. A few amarena cherries on a skewer can be used to garnish martinis, whiskey and bourbon, or even lemonades for those who don’t drink alcohol. It’s as much about visuals and the deep pop of red the Amarena cherries add as about the flavor.
As garnish goes, they’re also often used for garnishing desserts (same as maraschino cherries), starting from gelatos and ice creams to pancakes, fruit salads, and smoothies. They add a bright pop of color and a bit of sourness that balances out sweet flavors well. In fact, these days, Amareno gelato is famous all on its own, with cherries as the prominent flavor, not a garnish.
Unsurprisingly, they’re a popular ingredient in baking, most often paired with either chocolate or vanilla flavors to balance out. Tarts are a popular option, as well as pound cakes and even birthday cakes when mixed with other berries (though they’re still more often used as a garnish than as the main ingredient with this one).
And, for a quicker dessert option, some simply dip them in melted chocolate.
How to use Amarena cherry syrup:
The syrup amarena cherries come with is often disregarded. It’s pretty sweet, so somewhat more challenging to use than the actual cherries, but it can act as a significant ingredient all on its own when used right. Don’t waste a great product.
A drizzle of Amarena cherry syrup can add a little extra burst of flavor to desserts that aren’t very sweet or have a distinctly creamy flavor. Like classic New Style or San Sebastian cheesecake; vanilla, chocolate, or coffee-flavored ice cream or gelato; homemade pancakes, or even your morning oatmeal.
The trick is to remember how sweet it is and keep the amount you drizzle over something moderate.
As an independent ingredient, it can be used as a cocktail or an Italian soda basis all on its own. You just need to mix it with your favorite spirit with taste on the neutral side (like rum or vodka) or sparkling water, and you’ve got a unique drink ready to enjoy.
What to pair Amarena cherries with:
While it may sound like Amarena cherry’s potent flavor profile may overpower most other flavors, it actually accentuates some others quite a bit. It’s paired with classic flavors like vanilla ice cream, New York-style cheesecake, or spirits in cocktails often when the chef wants to highlight the cherry flavor.
That said, the sweet-and-sour flavor makes Amarena cherries a versatile ingredient fit for both sweet and savory dishes that can bring out flavors in other ingredients. Italian company Ritrovo, for example, has Amarena cherry balsamic vinegar that would act as a luxury substitute for classic balsamic vinegar; if you want to elevate a simple burrata salad with cherry tomatoes, strawberries, and arugula, ex.
Aside from vanilla, coffee, and chocolate (the classic cherry flavor pairings), you can easily pair Amarena cherries with:
- Nuts, particularly walnuts and almonds;
- Herbs, such as mint, thyme, and cinnamon;
- Peppery greens like arugula and cress;
- Citrus like oranges, grapefruit, and tangerines (Ritrovo amarena cherry balsamic would pair exceptionally well with citrusy salad);
- Cheese. Almost all types of cheese with distinct flavors would do. You can substitute cranberries for baked brie or camembert, or you can pair them with sharp cheddar or manchego and honey.
Suppose you’ve never tried Amarena cherries before or are simply looking for an easy way to get your hands on high-quality options. In that case, you can check out our selection of Amarena cherries and cherry-based products. Explore collections from Toschi, Ritrovo, or Fabbri amarena cherries, for both classic tastes and new products you’ve yet to try, and there’s a high chance you’ll come across what you’ve been looking for.