Little morsels of joy. That’s what they call tart cherries up here in Northwest Michigan, where three-quarters of the country’s supply is grown along the bucolic shores of Lake Michigan. We’re right in the heart of cherry season (a very brief window of time in late June and July), and I was fortunate to accompany a group of food writers and bloggers to experience the cherry harvest and learn more about the farm-to-table journey of this smallest of stone fruits. The trip was sponsored by the Cherry Marketing Institute, a group that I’ve had the privilege of working with for the last six years.
Tart cherries have quite the story to tell. You may think you know cherries, but if you’ve only eaten the ruby red stemmed fruits when you find them during the summer months at farmers’ markets or in your grocer’s produce aisle, then you haven’t experienced a tart cherry. Those are sweet cherries — a totally different variety. Tart cherries are rarely sold fresh, except here in Michigan or the handful of other tart cherry-growing states like Utah and Washington, so most people never get to taste them right off the tree. You see, this treasured fruit is highly perishable and the gems simply won’t hold up to the shipping. Plus, the tartness when fresh is a little too bold for many American’s palates (although I prefer a less sweet taste), so that’s why tart cherries historically were mixed with sugar and ended up in cans of pie filling. Tart cherries (also known as sour cherries) are the hero in the iconic American cherry pie. But with the numbers of home pie makers dwindling and many people swearing off desserts, the tart cherry industry had to reinvent itself.
Now tart cherries are enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Beyond cans of pie filling or jars of preserves, you can find whole tart cherries in bags in the frozen food aisle, or in dried form — like a tart cherry “raisin” — which makes for a tasty addition to oatmeal, salads, yogurt parfaits and other sweet and savory dishes (see collection of recipes below). Tart cherry juice and juice concentrate are also increasingly popular, fueled by studies showing that this crimson-colored drink can help reduce muscle damage and ease soreness after exercise. The great part — all of these forms make the precious tart cherry available throughout the year. That way, this tangy, sour delicacy is always in season.
Part of the revival is based on the fruit’s growing reputation as a nutrient-packed super fruit. Tart cherries are one of the richest sources of anthocyanins. It’s this phenolic compound that provides the bright red hue, the stringent taste and the health-promoting properties. The darker the color, the bolder the taste, the more anthocyanins inside. That’s why you’ll find more of these valuable anthocyanins in tart cherries compared to their sweet cousins. Studies suggest these natural compounds have anti-inflammatory and analgesic benefits, and may play a powerful role in protecting our heart and reducing the risk of certain cancers. Other studies have focused on the tart cherry’s ability to reduce joint pain, including easing distress from gout and arthritis. A completely different area of research has shown that tart cherries may help reduce insomnia and promote a longer, better quality of sleep. The reason why? Tart cherries are one of the few food sources of melatonin. You can read more about this research in The Red Report.
The most commonly grown variety of tart cherries is the Montmorency, named after a valley in France just north of Paris. In fact, more than 95 percent of North American tart cherries are Montmorency, and they’ve been cultivated here for more than 100 years. A newer variety of tart cherry that’s being grown in Michigan is called the Balaton, named after a lake in Hungary. Michigan State University scientists investigated the abundant tart cherry trees in Hungary (where they’re especially passionate about tart cherries) to help give Michigan farmers a new tart cherry variety that would bloom later and be less vulnerable to Michigan’s occasional late spring freeze, which devastated last year’s crop.
It takes about five years after a tart cherry tree is planted before you can mechanically harvest the fruit. Otherwise, the trunk is just too fragile to withstand the shaking from the equipment. Can you imagine the investment of nurturing a tree for five years without any return? That’s what it takes to be a tart cherry farmer – a truly passionate bunch.
We watched how the equipment (a shaker) came through the orchard and literally shook the tree to make the cherries fall off into a rolling conveyor belt.
The cherries gently tumbled in the trough-like container,
And they were immediately plopped into cold water.
The cherries are left in the tankfuls of water to cool down and soften, before being trucked to a processing plant where they’re pitted and then typically frozen, before they’re turned into all sorts of different products.
During our trip to Traverse City, the cherry capital of the United States, we made a visit to the nearby town of Glen Arbor to have lunch at the infamous Cherry Republic. Their motto is “Life, Liberty, Beaches and Pie.” You can’t beat that. We had the pleasure of hearing from the owner Bob Sutherland who talked about his life-long passion for cherries and how he built this mecca for the Montmorency. Here you can find just about everything made from tart cherries — salsa, BBQ sauce, burgers, hot dogs, cookies and drinks. I enjoyed guacamole that was studded with tart cherries, a cherry-chicken salad, and, of course, cherry pie for dessert.
I truly love the taste of tart cherries, and I think America’s palates are beginning to change. Bolder, more bitter and sourer tastes are trending up. People are demanding foods and drinks that are less sweet. That’s a good thing. Here’s what others are doing with tart cherries. I love seeing the range — from main entrees (tart cherries are amazing with pork), vegetables, salads, breads, snacks and desserts.
Michigan Cherry Chicken Salad
Seared Pork Chops with Tart Cherries and Mint
Roast Pork Tenderloin with Tart Cherries
Wine-Braised Brisket with Tart Cherries
Glazed Salmon with Rustic Tart Cherry Salsa
Lamb Chops with Dried Cherries and Port
Scallops with Cauliflower, Dried Cherries and Capers
Olive-Tart Cherry Focaccia Pizza
Brussels Sprouts Salad with Sour Cherries, Hazelnuts and Manchego Cheese
Frisee and Apple Salad with Dried Cherries and Walnuts
Super Green Salad with Tart Cherries and Butternut Squash
Grapefruit and Goat Cheese Salad with Tart Cherry Balsamic Dressing
Wild Rice Salad with Dried Sour Cherries
Chewy Cherry Coconut Granola Bars
Toasted Walnuts with Tart Cherries and Rosemary
Coconut Chocolate Cherry Granola
Dark Chocolate Cherry Nutella Granola
Blue Cheese Dip with Michigan Dried Tart Cherries
Cherry Republic’s Perfect Cherry Pie
Sour Cherry and Almond Meringue Tart
Chocolate Cherry Almond Biscotti
Apple and Dried Cherry Bread Pudding
Sour Cherry Sauce
Tart Cherry Oatmeal Cookies
Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies with Tart Cherries
Sour- Cherry Pistachio Crisp
Disclosure: The Cherry Marketing Institute is my client and I accompanied the educational event to Traverse City, Michigan, along with other food writers and bloggers. CMI paid my travel and lodging expenses, although I was not paid to write this post. All comments and opinions are my own.