THIS year’s cherry harvest was nasty, brutish and short -- born in gloom, beset by trials and only now at the end seeing some glimmer of sunshine. But fear not: There is a second season just around the corner.
This is a matter of great cheer, not for philosophers, but for cooks. As disastrous as the just-concluding California cherry harvest has been, it is really just an opening act for the much bigger season in the Pacific Northwest, which is just beginning.
If you missed cherries entirely this spring, or balked at the rarified prices (last week Bings were selling for as much as $10 a pound -- if you could find them), this will be a splendid second chance.
And how could you let spring go by without eating a cherry? Or, more likely, several handfuls of them? Cherries are almost compulsively edible. Pop one in your mouth, crunch through the firm skin and taste the sweet-tart juice and it would take a very strong person not to reach for a second. And then a third. And so it goes.
All except this year, when it seemed like a moderately determined eater could work through a significant chunk of the state’s harvest in one sitting.
How bad was it? In an average year, the state picks roughly 55,000 tons of cherries. Last year was considered a disaster at 31,500 tons. And this year’s take almost surely will be less than 23,000 tons.
That California’s cherry harvest was so bad is a shame, but it is not unexpected. This kind of year happens fairly regularly. California is at the southern extreme of the cherry’s growing range, which is both a blessing and a curse.
In a good year, the fruit ripens a full month ahead of the Pacific Northwest, and farmers grab handsome prices from being first to the lucrative Asian export market. Between a quarter and a third of all the cherries grown in California are shipped overseas, and as bad as this year has been, cherries at the Los Angeles wholesale market last week were going for as much as $70 to $80 for an 18-pound box.
But growing this far south entails risks as well. Springtime weather in California can be treacherous -- rainy and cold or hot and dry, and sometimes both in the same week. This year’s harvest was stunted from the beginning as cold rainy weather delayed the flowering of the trees and inhibited pollination. (Pay no attention to the song: Bees don’t do it when it’s chilly and damp.) Then, just as things started looking up, along came a solid week of rain in some growing areas.
Down but not out
VIDAL Morga, who works at Bautista Ranch outside of Stockton and sells cherries at the Santa Monica farmers market, says that he lost 10 harvest days to rain this year out of a 30-day season.
“If you want to know how bad it was, some of the big growers were even driving their trucks to the packing house themselves,” he says.
But harvests like this year’s and last’s are not enough to discourage California’s cherry farmers. Cherry acreage in the state doubled from 1991 to 2001, and growers are still adding about 1,000 acres of orchards a year.
That’s just part of a general exuberance in the cherry market. In the last decade, farmers in the Northwest have increased orchard acreage by almost 50%. A good portion of this is land that used to be apples as growers flee the wretched economics of that business.
Overall, last year was a record crop for cherries, despite California’s bad harvest, and this year looks about 20% bigger than that one.
That means plenty of fruit -- enough even to get past the eating-out-of-hand, my-God-can-you-believe-how-good-these-cherries-are stage. There’ll be so many cherries this year you’ll even want to cook them.
But how will you cook them? The fresh cherries we get are mostly Bings. The traditional cooking cherries -- tart fruit like Montmorency and Morello -- are almost all grown in Michigan, and all but a smattering of them end up canned. Those that are sold fresh are so delicate they rarely leave the state.
As delicious as Bings are, when it comes to cooking they can use a little help. Without it, they can taste a little insipid, sweet but lacking the acid backbone that is so necessary for character.
In most cases, a little balsamic vinegar is all that’s needed to take care of this. And not the expensive stuff either. That 25-year-old aceto is marvelous dribbled over fresh cherries, but cooking with it would be a waste.
Instead, use that bottle of cheap stuff that’s been lingering in your pantry since you moved up to dressing your salads with good red wine vinegar. You won’t be using very much of it -- less than a tablespoon per pound of cherries usually -- but its combination of caramelized sweetness and vinegar burn is the perfect balance.
The vinegar trick
IT’S the balsamic that makes the difference in this California-ized variation on cold spiced Hungarian soup. Poached in rose wine with all the warm spices cherries take to so readily, the fruit tints the soup a pale, creamy pink. Serve it as a first course on a hot afternoon, and the slightly sweet soup will perk up even the most jaded of appetites.
A hint of balsamic also enlivens the poached cherries served with homemade ricotta. This recipe was developed with the help of a couple of friends. A couple of weeks ago at the farmers market, Melisse chef Josiah Citrin was telling me how he’d been cooking cherries sous vide (in vacuum-packed bags) in a little wine at low temperature.
I tried replicating it just using a couple of Ziploc plastic bags and it worked fine. The cherries stay firmer than they normally would in poaching. And because there is less cooking liquid, the fruit seems to come to the fore -- the cherries taste more like cherries and so does the wine syrup that’s left over.
The cheese comes from “Tasty,” the new cookbook by my friend Roy Finamore. He calls it ricotta, but it’s really not. Ricotta is made from whey and is low in fat and almost pure protein. There is nothing lean about Finamore’s cheese -- it’s made with whole milk and the addition of a full cup of heavy cream.
But it shares ricotta’s lovely milky freshness. And it comes together so easily it’s no challenge at all -- heat the milk just to a simmer, add a little vinegar and stir. Then drain off the liquid (this really is the whey).
By themselves, the tart, winey cherries and the luxurious fresh cheese are delicious. Combined, they are absolutely amazing. Dust with just a little ground cinnamon to provide a flavor bridge.
Another trick for juicing up cherries is to pair them with almonds -- just a dash of almond extract will add depth of flavor and round out the taste remarkably.
This is even better when you top roasted cherries with a deep, crumbly blanket of ground nuts lightened with egg whites, baked until deeply fragrant and a rich dark brown.
It seems like just the thing to comfort a fruit that’s been through such a hard season.