I am nothing if not stubborn. Last year, on one of the hottest days of the year, I held my mother and father prisoners at my dining table to pit two 15 pound cases of cherries, and made jam. I had the jars, I had the cherries, and when the weather forecast for a hot and unusually humid day came out, I refused to change my plans. I filled my house with steaming hot fruit, and cranked up my oven to finish the canning process. My parents and my dining room walls and furniture were speckled with cherry juice—it looked kind of macabre like some sort of point-blank shooting fiasco. We were all sweating bullets. I can still picture my poor parents hunched over piles of cherry pits. David Lebowitz, a prominent pastry chef (formerly of Chez Panisse) writes in his blog about making cherry jam: “Stand back. This is gonna get messy.” It’s no wonder Mom and Dad think I’m a crazy person.
But being crazy has its benefits too. For example, in the middle of the winter, I roasted some cherries I had squirreled away in the freezer in balsamic vinegar in a moment of summer fruit withdrawal, and ate it over vanilla ice cream in my freezing cold house. This past weekend, I bought my first bag of cherries and cracked open my very last jar of cherry preserves from that brutal day last summer, and mixed them into a crisp for Mothers’ Day—a perfect circle of events, in my mind. My friend Samin used to can enough tomatoes and tomato sauce at the rustic Italian restaurant where we worked that we had enough to last us for a whole year until the following year’s tomato season. My humble jam production is hardly anything to match the tomato canning operation that she ran, but I always feel a tingle of pride when I am able to put enough of something by to last me to the next year. Some things I can live without through the winter, but cherries are not one of those things. You can imagine my rapture at seeing the first cherries at the market this weekend.
The first cherries of the season are Brooks, which is what you will find at the area farmers’ markets this week. They are a wonderful and delicious hybrid of Burlat and Ranier cherries developed at our very own UC Davis in 1969. It quickly became one of the more popular varietals grown, especially in this area. They are a big, juicy, flavorful, sweet cherry that are extremely heat tolerant, and fruit up to a full month before other varietals. Typically, though, a few short weeks following the Brooks’ appearance at the market, the king of sweet cherry varietals arrives—the Bing.
The Bing was developed in the earliest years of the West’s tree fruit industry. In the 1850’s the Lewelling brothers, originally from Iowa, set up a cherry orchard in what is now Milwaukee, Oregon, an outlying area of Portland. With the help of their Chinese orchard foreman named Bing, they developed my favorite variety of cherry. It is now the mostly widely produced cherry in the United States.
There are many edible members of the Prunus genus with “cherry” incorporated into their names, but commercially produced cherries generally fall in one of two species—cerasus (the sour cherry) and avium (the sweet cherry). There are almost 100 different cultivars of sweet cherries, but only a handful are very popularly produced—Bing, Burlat, Brooks, Ranier (the white ones), Royal Anne, and Lambert. Avium is native to the temperate regions of Eastern Europe and China, and was cultivated as early as 300 B.C. The sour cherry is also sometimes called “pie cherry” or “tart cherry,” the most common variety of which is the “Montmorency.” It is thought the sour cherry first occurred as a natural hybrid of a type of bush cherry and the sweet cherry.
The leaves of the cherry tree can also be used. The Japanese salt-preserve and candy them, and then use them as a flavorful garnish on desserts. There is a wonderful Southern Italian goat’s milk cheese called Fiorito in Foglie di Ciliege that is wrapped in cherry leaves.
As I write this, I’m sitting under my very own canopy of cherry leaves, my Bing cherry tree, as I drink in the spring breeze and warm sun. I am mentally willing the little green cherries to become plump and deep red. My mind is racing with cherry-related recipes—compotes, clafoutis, upside down cakes, crisps, pies, frangipane tarts…and of course, I’m plotting for the hottest day this summer to make jam. Stand back! This is gonna get messy!