Cheers for fresh cherries: They are the pick of many

Crop of popular fruit is small and season is fleeting in Md.

June 29, 2005|By Christianna McCausland | Christianna McCausland,Special to the Sun

Allan Baugher coaxes his ancient Ford pickup truck up a grassy slope past rows of cherry trees thick with foliage.

As the truck trundles by, there are glimpses of small green pearls nestled among the leaves, some just gaining the blush of maturity. In a few weeks, if all goes well, these will be some of the few but delicious Maryland sweet and sour cherries of the season.

"People enjoy picking cherries," says Baugher, who has managed Baugher's Farm Orchard Market in Westminster since 1953. His family bought the property in 1900. "When you get them tree-ripened, it's hard to find a better fruit anywhere."

The arrival of cherries in markets practically signifies the arrival of summer itself. And like these few months of sun and warmth, cherries are prized for their rarity. Unlike other fruit that is available almost year-round, it is unusual to find fresh cherries in the store past the summer. The season in Maryland, from about mid-June to mid-July, is as fleeting and fantastic as a summer thunderstorm.

"Cherries are a fruit that people equate with American cuisine, whether it's cherry pie or something else," says Nancy Longo, chef-owner of Pierpoint restaurant in Fells Point. "They're something most people have grown up with."

The state's crop of cherries is so small it is not recorded by the state Department of Agriculture. The leading producer of tart cherries is Michigan, while the largest crop of sweet cherries is grown in the Pacific coast states. Most of the cherries raised in Maryland go to a few markets or are consumed at pick-your-own orchards like Baugher's and Catoctin Mountain Orchard in Thurmont.

"People just love eating a quart of cherries as they head down the road," says Robert Black, president and co-owner of Catoctin Mountain Orchard. "There's nothing better than picking and eating cherries. You just need to spit the pits out."

In France, as in Maryland, it is the season of cherries, and at Petit Louis Bistro in Roland Park, the restaurant marks the occasion with a monthlong cherry festival. To honor the arrival of the red gems, chef Cindy Wolf creates a menu in which three of the four courses put the summer fruit on center stage.

The menu features a cold soup of Bing cherries and nectarines complemented by the addition of lime juice, which heightens the flavor of the fruit. The remainder of the meal features some traditional incarnations of the cherry such as duck in a cherry sauce and the quintessential French dessert, clafoutis.

Some of Wolf's other favorite cherry dishes show up on the menu at her restaurant Charleston, like cherries marinated in raspberry vinegar with a little sugar served with pan-seared foie gras. "If you are into making foie gras at home, that's easy to do and just a breathtaking way to eat cherries," she says.

There are as many varieties of cherries as there are shades of red, from the Queen Anne, which is a cream-colored cherry with a slight red blush, to the deep-red Bing cherry that is the most famous sweet cherry.

Cherries also vary in flavor. A Queen Anne will have a milder sweetness than a deep, dark-red variety. A sour cherry (sometimes called a tart cherry) can make an unseasoned eater pucker. It is this versatility that makes cherries such a hit with cooks.

"Because they have more than one variety, you have something for the folks that want something sweet and you have the sour cherry for those who like the sour; you have an option. And it's not like when you have a peach and a nectarine that have a similar fleshy texture. You don't have another piece of fruit that tastes like a cherry," says Longo. "Cherries ground up into a puree have a wonderful texture to make into sorbet or ice cream and, in terms of stewing or putting into a pie, they tend to hold their shape well."

When it comes to the use of sweet vs. sour cherries, the kitchen divides down personal taste lines. "I had an employee bring me in sour cherries from their house and I cannot imagine using them for anything other than making jam!" says Wolf.

However, Longo likes to snack on sour cherries, gently smashing them with the palm of her hand to remove the pit. Baugher dips them in a little sugar before eating them raw.

He says that while customers often buy sour cherries for making jam and pies, he's seen a rising demand for the fruit for savory dishes, especially now that new research indicates sour cherries are a source of antioxidants, including melatonin, which may help with everything from the pain of arthritis to fighting cancer.

Gregory Wentz, certified executive chef and a chef instructor at the Baltimore International College, prefers sour cherries for cooking. "I think the sour cherries have a little more cherry flavor, so to speak, because if you took the sugars away from the sweet cherries, I think you have inferior quality of flavors."

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