August 06, 2006

Cherries: From the Tree To Your Table and My Tummy

Summer means the arrival of lots of readily available, fresh local fruit, the best of which could very well be cherries. I may be slightly biased in this regard as I have spent every cherry season of my entire life in my Grandparents cherry orchard, picking, sorting and selling cherries. This is where I have been for the past week, sorting through basket after basket of cherries, removing the bad ones, eating the best ones and putting the good ones into baskets for customers. The orchard is small and family run. There are 34 trees which produce a variety of Bing cherries (the big, sweet, dark ones) as well as 3 trees of Oxhearts and Victors (a semi-sweet white cherry with a touch of pink, some people think they’re sour, those people are not cherry connoisseurs).

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The pickers begin as early as sun rise to avoid the heat and are usually finished by lunch time. Since I wasn’t picking I got to sleep into about 6:30am, when I would get up, have breakfast (I enjoyed fresh raspberries on my cereal because they’re in season too) and then start sorting. Sorting cherries requires both an eye and a feel for bad cherries. There are a number of clues that give away a bad cherry in a bunch. Juice on your hands is a clear sign that something’s wrong. If a cherry feels soft, there’s reason to suspect foul play. Missing stems are simply a reason to pop it in your mouth because without the stem the life span of a cherry decreases dramatically. These are some of the reasons for a cherry not to make it into a customer’s basket, but a split should not be one of them. A cherry split that has dried is perfectly edible. In fact, the splits are some of the sweetest cherries there are. A split has occurred for one of 2 reasons, both of which have to do with rain. A very heavy rain can cause cherries to split from sheer impact, cherries are delicate after all, (which reminds me- DON’T squeeze cherries and then tell me they’re soft, they weren’t soft until you squeezed them, don’t do it). The second reason is that the cherries have soaked up the rain from the roots and have become so swollen and juicy that they’ve split their skin. After the rain clears and the cherries are dried up, some of them will have splits and although they may not be as pretty as their peers, the garbage is definitely not where they should end up. Many people are not aware of this and complain when they see a split in a basket, now that you’re enlightened on the issue embrace the split cherry and quit complaining about it. So, back to my day of sorting and selling… If there were cherries leftover from the day before I would sort them first and then move onto the incoming baskets. We never sold cherries that were more than a day old.

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Being the cherry snob that I am, I rarely eat cherries that have been off the tree for more than 24 hours, and certainly never eat cherries that come from the grocery store and have been sitting on a truck for God only knows how long... The only exception to the 24 hour rule are the frozen cherries that I snack on in the winter, but I put them into the freezer within 24 hours of being off the tree. The reason for my cherry snobbery is simple: I’ve tasted the best and I won’t lower my standards to eat sub-par cherries. Plucked straight off the branch, cherries are firmer, crunchier and have better flavour than anything else. They taste great in both desserts and main courses, but I must confess that although I have good intentions they rarely last long enough for me to turn them into anything. This year I froze a bunch of the white cherries to make into jam one day when I’m bored, you don’t see cherry jam around enough. I’m also tempted to make a cherry yogurt cake like the rhubarb one I made a while ago and I’ve already made a pie. Cherries are amazing in pies all on their own or with other fruit. The one I whipped up was cherry-raspberry-strawberry, all fresh picked. It was summer in a pie.

Dessert wasn’t the only thing I was making, but not everything involved cherries. I volunteered to cook dinner for the family every night as this let me escape the tediousness of sorting for a few hours. I was cooking dinners for a bigger group than I usually do. The number of people ranged from 8 to 15 depending on the night. The ‘go big or go home’ mentality was quite useful in this situation. I made lasagna, (ginger and spinach are nice additions) pork tenderloin, (dry rubbed and then done on the bbq) green salads every night (with lettuce, raspberries and parsley fresh from the garden) tabbouleh, (my Grandma never quite got the name right) ribs, (clearly my dad had a hand in this one, we used a recipe from the latest Food & Drink magazine from the LCBO) Asian chicken stirfry (with soba noodles), a bbq’d roast, (more experimenting with dry rubs) salmon (marinated in soy and maple syrup) and a heap of other side dishes and appetizers. Cherry season however, did not allow for time to write about any of this. After my break to cook dinner I would return to the stand, sorting and selling cherries until 9pm when I was exhausted and ready for bed. But it’s tradition, and summer wouldn’t be the same without cherry season. The first night that I was back home I was missing the cherries already and sautéed turkey breast with a cherry and balsamic vinegar sauce. Fruit and meat are an excellent combination and summer’s the ideal time to test out new pairings. Eat fresh, eat local, eat well.

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