One never hears of cherry gluts. Apples, yes. Citrus, also. There can even be too many pears. But cherries? Smack dab in the middle of cherry season, bang in cherry country, there are never more cherries than takers. Cherry trees are such finicky plants, the fruit are so tricky to pick and, once plucked, so very perishable, that cherry season is like no other--more fleeting than summer, as compelling as a perfectly sunny day.
Sweet cherry season, that is. It is best, here, to draw a veil over the sour cherry industry of Michigan, in which the entire crop is strangely brutalized by processors before sweetening and dying beyond recognition. If those cherries are sour, they have good reason. But this is about the only true cherries sold in the United States, fresh sweet cherries, and, whee, almost all of these come from the West Coast, where the season starts in California.
It unfolds in three distinct stages, the first being jealous disapproval. Teeth start grinding in mid-May when the first cherries from the Central Valley are packed up and sent to the Far East. As the critics have it, these cherries are picked too early and lack flavor. The B-side of that particular gripe is that our best fruit goes abroad.
But by the last week of May, local cherries are more than a rumor. They’re in the farmers markets. At worst, they’re good. At best, they’re superb.
The early ones will be a touch tart. These are an acquired taste, argues Fresno area cherry farmer John Hurley. They’re a relatively new, early harvest variety called Brooks: heart-shaped as a Valentine, crisp on the tongue, with good sweetness but a distinct acidic fillip. Ripe enough, they can turn a deep red, but most are lighter, more garnet-colored. “I tell people they’re not just sweet, that they have character,” says Hurley.
At markets around Los Angeles last week, Hurley was also selling blushing yellow and pink Rainiers, which he hopes to keep in his Summer Harvest stalls at farmers markets in Santa Monica, Calabasas, Studio City and Beverly Hills through much of June. These are also tart and firm, what cherry farmers call “crunchy.” By mid-June, the cherry supply will swell suddenly as other growers bring the main season cherry, the big red Bing.
There are hundreds of cherry varieties, including Garnets, Tartarians, Chinooks, Burlats, Lamberts, Vans, Black Republicans and so on. But Bing is the most popular sweet cherry in the United States for two reasons: It’s an intense mahogany red, and it’s explosively sweet. Make that one reason: It’s delicious.
Effete horticulturalists will always attempt to best the Bing with some exotic cherry that only they have tasted, served by nymphs, with harps playing. But for commoners, the Bing offers its own rapture, as sweet and perfectly tart as jam, and, here’s the trick, zingily fresh. Cruelly, Bings disappear from farmers markets at the end of June, but there is a reprieve. California is revived by a third season, in supermarkets, when Bings from Oregon and Washington replace exhausted local stocks.
But even with the longest season in the country, Californians could always eat more cherries. UC Davis farm advisor Steve Southwick explains why supply never exceeds demand. Cherries are extremely tricky to grow. “If it’s not been cold enough in the winter, the trees don’t make flowers properly,” he says. “Wind can be a big problem. It can scar the fruit and mark the fruit. Then, during bloom, if it rains and it’s cold, that’s no good. Most cherries require cross pollination. The honey bees might not fly.”
Even with clear flying conditions, the pollinating trees, which must be a different variety from the fruit-making ones, have a troublesome habit of flowering at the wrong time. Then there are viruses, fungi and, heaven forfend, sudden heat waves that can ripen the crop too quickly.
But the most persistent threat during harvest is rain. Last week in the Central Valley, cherry farmers hired helicopters to fly low over their orchards in an attempt to blow rain off trees soaked by a wave of late spring storms. The worry was that the cherries would absorb the water through their skin, and then burst on the bough.
“It takes about four to five hours of a good steady rain, then kaboom. You can hear them popping on the trees,” says John Fellman, a post-harvest physiologist at Washington State University. “Everybody hates that sound.”
Every five years, crops are wiped out, he says. This year, California squeaked by without many losses. Moreover, a cool year has produced “gorgeous cherries,” according to Jim Culbertson, manager of the California Cherry Advisory Board. Cool equals slow ripening, he says, the best conditions for good fruit size and intense flavor.
Having saved all those gorgeous cherries, farmers now have to pick them. The term “cherry picking” did not come to connote extravagant care by accident. Sweet cherries bruise and cannot be mechanically harvested. Ripe cherries bruise the most easily, but this is the only time to pick them, says Elizabeth Mitcham, a post-harvest physiologist from UC Davis. “With cherries the best quality is going to be there at the time of harvest,” she says. “They don’t continue sweetening after harvest.”
So farmers go out with ladders and pails, much the way they have for thousands of years, and hand-pick their cherries. During World War II, when labor was scarce, cherry farmers opened their ranches to the pick-your-own trade. In Southern California, this has become tradition at Mile High Ranch in Beaumont, so the farmers keep the trees pruned low, about 14 feet high, says Magdalena Humphrey. Insurance company rules mean only professional pickers get to go up ladders. All the better for eating while you work. Mile High Ranch charges $10 to fill a 5-pound pail--a bargain says Humphrey, “considering they can munch on cherries all the while.”
Those planning a family outing should not be surprised by the sounds of cannons firing in cherry country. These will be bird-scaring devices, along with balloons shaped like eyes and plastic snakes in trees. They don’t fool smart birds, says John Fellman. “One of my most vivid memories is of watching a magpie eat cherries while sitting on top of a cannon that was reporting every five minutes,” he says.
If birds and pickers get the freshest cherries, Mitcham offers this advice for shoppers in towns: Look for shiny skin and dark color. The glossiness is natural she says, and a good sign. In Rainiers, the pale background should be yellow.
Rancher Hurley warns shoppers at farmers markets to watch out for stalls selling an overabundance of cherries with “spurs,” a flaw where a second seed protrudes near the stem, or “doubles,” which are Siamese twin-type cherries with two fruit for one stem. This is natural--every crop will have some; it happens when a bud is heat-shocked. But if you encounter all spurs, the chances are good that the “farmer” is really a peddler and selling packing house culls, the rejects set aside by packers. “What’s allowed at farmers markets is a ‘field run’ of fruit, so you get the good and the bad and we’re able to sell everything,” says Hurley.
Once you get cherries home, if you get them home without devouring them, Mitcham recommends getting them straight into a sealed bag in the refrigerator on a cold shelf as close to 32 degrees as possible. By all means wash and dry them, but don’t soak them. The cherries’ permeable skin not only lets in water, it lets out precious acids responsible for their tantalizing tartness.
“Unless there is a certain type of acid,” warns Fellman, “the cherry becomes the famous dog’s nose. It’s cold and wet but not much else.”
The whole point of cherries is that intense burst of sour sweet flavor.
Deborah Olson’s family has been growing cherries in the Santa Clara Valley in Northern California since 1899. The most passionate cherry aficionados will tell you that the ocean cool that seeps in from the San Francisco Bay and envelops orchards at night make it the best cherry growing territory in the country. Olson’s family sells cherries from a stall, local fruit in season, South American imports in the winter.
She’s seen customers feed their children their first cherries and she’s sold cherries to hospice nurses in search of a final pleasure for the lips of a dying patient. One of her fondest childhood memories was accompanying her father to the train station to send “fancy packs” of cherries on trains to New York, where her family’s cherries, she says, always got the best prices. “There’s no other fruit like a cherry,” she says.
Given the persistent rarity of cherries, the poignancy of the memories they evoke, the longing that they inspire and the prices they fetch ($4 to $5 a pound), it is hardly surprising that we do not cook them much. The late English fruit connoisseur Edward Bunyard said of his favorite cherry, the Duke, “to cook it were a vandalism.” Even French pastry chefs set aside their dough scrapers and list “bowl of cherries” on their dessert menus every summer. Olson hopes that the same tradition will catch on here.
But she takes exception to the idea that “pie cherries,” the Michigan sour cherries processed into canned fillings, are superior to her sweet cherry pies. And a person who finds themselves with a large sack of sweet cherries, enough to spare for the kitchen, is in for a treat, she reckons. “I’ve always made Bing cherry pie. Always. When I was growing up, I didn’t realize that there were such things as tart cherries. I think the pie I make is sensational,” she says. “I’ll put my pie up against any tart cherry pie any day.”