What's in season-Cherries
A Short But Sweet Season
Cherries are the earliest stone fruit to arrive in our local farmers' markets every year and they are eagerly awaited by everyone, including me. The quintessential harbinger of spring, cherries are also one of the most popular fruits available at U-Pick farms up and down the state. One of my earliest food experiences was going with my family, including my grandmother, to Beaumont in Southern California for the express purpose of picking cherries. There are photos of me in an old photo album, a 4-year-old in a white pinafore several steps up on a ladder with a small basket on my arm. I got to eat all the cherries I wanted that day, which, on the long drive back home to Laguna Beach, turned out to be not such a good idea.
My passion for fresh cherries has not diminished, and I even have my own cherry tree, a Montmorency sour or tart cherry variety. Each season it is a race to see who can get the cherries first, me or the birds. I usually manage to get enough to make a cherry pie or two and to put up a pint jar's worth in brandy. These cherries are quite a bit smaller than the large, plump Bing cherries, and they are bright red rather than dark purple.
I decided to plant a Montmorency tree because sour cherries are almost impossible to find in the markets, whereas sweet cherries, once they are in season, are plentiful. While thousands of tons of sour cherries are grown in the United States, 75% of them are grown in Michigan and 99% of the sour cherry crop goes to processing, either to be canned or frozen.
California, on the other hand, is the nation's second-largest producer of sweet cherries, after Washington State, and our cherries are the first to arrive. Their short season can begin as early as mid April, and by mid to late May you'll find fresh California-grown sweet cherries flooding farmers' markets, roadside stands and supermarkets. In our area you often see pop-up stands spring up during cherry season. These are hard for me to resist and I almost always stop and buy some whenever I see them.
There a number of different sweet cherry varieties, including the beautiful yellow Rainier cherry, and they tend to ripen at different times during the cherry season.
As cherry season approaches, I recommend keeping a lookout for roadside signs announcing fresh cherries, in addition to shopping the farmers' markets. The website harvest4you.com/farm-category/u-pick-farms is a good resource for finding U-Pick farms in your area, but your county farm advisor's office should also be able to provide a current list. If you feel inspired to make a day out of cherry picking (which I highly recommend), consider traveling to the Brentwood area in Contra Costa County, the heart of the Bay Area's stone fruit region.
Whatever you do, don't miss this short but glorious season!