This column originally ran in June 2000, showcasing one of the most precious fruits of the season. Way Fruit Farm is our local source, though co-owner Jason Coopey explained that the weather did not cooperate this spring to make an abundant crop. The March warmth, followed by two weeks of Arctic cold, will keep the harvest down, so shoppers will have to be vigilant if they want to get any at all. “We have a half-way decent crop of sweet cherries,” Coopey said, “less tart cherries though. There will be no u-pick season for them this year, and we will sell them at the store.” Get ’em while you can!
Cherries, summer’s ephemeral emblem, are patriotically decorating central Pennsylvania trees and should ripen through the Fourth of July. They are now in supermarkets, shipped from the cherry-producing regions of Washington and California, but local varieties will be available soon. Farmers markets will have some but don’t expect an abundant supply this year. They are scarce — which makes the few that come our way even more precious.
Cherries have long been held in high esteem, associated by poets with love, fairies and the good life. Sweet and luscious, this short-lived fruit of early summer suggests a romantic alliance, as noted by British poet John Fletcher, who wrote of “Cherries kissing as they grow, And inviting men to taste.” Other romantic lines on this fruit include Shakespeare’s, who writes in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” of Helena’s lips, “those kissing cherries.”
The first of the stone fruits to ripen, cherries emanate from a single genus, Prunus, in the rose family. Prunus avium, the sweet cherry species, is also known as “bird’s cherry,” and that is what you have to beat to the trees this time of year. Some of the popular varieties of sweet cherries include Bings, Lamberts, Golds and Royal Annes. Prunus cerasus is the sour cherry, or “pie cherry,” which is acidic and requires sugar to be palatable to most tastes. Two distinct strains of sour cherries have developed — amarelles, with pale red fruit and colorless juice, and morellos, which are dark red with red juice. Montmorency is a common sour cherry variety. A hybrid has resulted from a cross between the two species, the Duke, which derives from the given French name Medoc, later corrupted by the British to May Duke.
Sweet, sour and hybrid varieties are all nutritionally potent, a good source of potassium and vitamin A. Additionally, they contain compounds that seem to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Back in the 1950s Dr. Ludwig Blau, a Texan, was so crippled by gouty arthritis that he was confined to a wheelchair. His report in a Texas medical journal at the time claimed that including six cherries per day in his diet soon had him walking on his own. Subsequent trials reported equally beneficial results, though less so with rheumatic arthritis, and research today is still examining the effect.
The native habitat of cherry trees seems to have been western Asia and eastern Europe, though the unintentional distribution by birds makes an exact spot difficult to determine. The United States is the largest producer of cherries (Washington state now ranks first in U.S. cherry production) — in 1997, 440 million pounds of sweet cherries and 279 million pounds of tart cherries. In Japan, tree varieties are selected for the beauty of their flowers and most of these do not make cherries. In 1912 the mayor of Tokyo presented Washington, D.C., with the thousands of seedlings that were planted around the Tidal Basin, an everlasting visual treat in early spring that, no doubt, the city workers are quite glad don’t drop fruit.
Many consumers who aren’t eagle-eyed in early summer may miss the fresh cherry season. They have to be content with canned or frozen cherries or with the ubiquitous maraschino cherries that bear slim resemblance to cherries in their native state.
According to the Cherry Marketing Institute, the maraschino cherry originated several centuries ago in the coastal regions of Yugoslavia and northern Italy where a local cherry tree named the “Marasca” was used for a particular fruit liqueur. Cherries steeped in the liqueur were first imported to the United States in the 1890s as a gourmet item and were used in the finest restaurants and hotels. In 1896 manufacturers started using the domestic Royal Anne sweet cherry. Less liqueur was used in the processing and almond oil was substituted for the missing alcohol. Eventually, the liqueur was eliminated entirely. By 1920, the American maraschino cherry was so popular that it had replaced the foreign variety in our country.
Until we can all travel to Europe, with the mission of tracking down that Marasca cherry tree and testing the product at its source, we’ll all have to satisfy ourselves with big bowls of fresh cherries and let them dangle into our mouths, staining our lips and giving us sweet cherry breath — for a couple of weeks at least.
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (“Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
Makes one 8-inch cake
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 cup cherries, sweet or sour, pitted
1 tablespoon slivered almonds
1 tablespoon sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray an 8-inch cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Cream the butter and the sugar together in an electric mixer. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and add the extract. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and add to the wet ingredients in the mixer. Lightly combine and then pour the batter into the prepared pan. Arrange the cherries on top of the batter and sprinkle with the almonds and then the sugar. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the cake tests done with a toothpick. Allow to cool in the pan for a few minutes, then turn it out onto a cooling rack, remove the parchment paper and set the cake on a plate to cook completely.
Tip: Use an opened up paperclip to remove the pits in the cherries without having to cut them in half and lose the juice.