Last week I was invited by the Cherry Marketing Institute to join them and a few others at the Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Michigan. I haven’t visited in over 10 years and have always heard how beautiful Michigan is in the summer but the real reason I wanted to go was because I’ve never once had a Tart Cherry. That’s right, I said it. Sure, I know Bings and Raniers and all our other delicious sweet cherry varietals but a true sour Michigan Cherry had always escaped me. And after spending a few days with cherry experts, researchers, growers and enthusiasts I know why: they’re just too fragile and don’t ship well. At least not in their fresh state. But more about that later.
Without a doubt these are the cherries I will forever dream of. I’m not knocking my West Coast fruit but these tart cherries have a complexity, depth and certain zing that I’ve never tasted. Picking Montmorency and Balaton cherries from the tree knocked my socks off, and if you can imagine tasting spicy notes with the softest, most tender flesh then you’re close to understanding just how good they are. The colors vary from deep crimson to yellow to a bright atomic red that appears to glow in the dark, enabling you to spot the tiny fruit on the tree from quite a distance. They’re not sour like citrus but mildly tart and perfect for pie making. And more on that later, too.
After we arrived we headed to the Boat House Restaurant, nestled on the peninsula overlooking the bay. Dinner was late in the evening (according to my old man standards!) but you’d never know it as the beautiful bright sun sets so much later up north. In fact, these photos were taken at 8:40 at night! It was a wonderful meal that included Michigan cherries in every course—naturally–and it ended with Cherries Jubilee over ice cream. I always hear people talk about Northern Michigan being so beautiful but until you’re sitting smack dab in the middle of it in July it’s just hard to comprehend. This was a beautiful place with bucolic views and groves of deep lush green trees. Farmhouses dot the roads and rest across docks that go on forever into the lake. I’ll tell you this: let me win the lottery and I could easily spend my summers here. I’m not kidding. But a town is only as wonderful as its people. And the folks of Traverse City made me feel so at home. Gracious, polite and engaging, I almost forgot what it was like to have strangers make you feel so welcome and treat you like family. Add their jovial spirit with my chatty ways and you can see why I didn’t want to leave.
Our guide for the trip was Phil Korson, President of the Cherry Marketing Institute, the national cherry organization that helps promote all things tart cherries. It is an organization comprised of growers and processors across the US. Phil was a wonderful resource, answering our questions about cherries and explaining how the factors of sun, wind, heat and cold winters all determine what kind of crop the cherry trees will yield. He took us to meet Don and Ann Gregory, farmers who have been growing tart cherries for many years. We toured the cherry orchards, stopping for photo moments that included beautiful scenic views and quick sneaks of fresh hanging cherries right off the tree.
Now you’ll have to excuse me for my lack of harvesting know-how but apparently shaking a cherry tree isn’t actually a euphemism for something else! Who knew? After a quick lesson we all took turns shaking the tree and harvesting the fruit. It was a remarkably old-fashioned way of removing cherries from a tree. You simply shake. Of course there are machines that do this but you realize how gentle one has to be when working with cherries. These little babies are remarkably fragile!
We also visited the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station, a multidisciplinary horticultural facility that focuses on fruit production and specializes in tart and sweet cherry research. You name it and these folks do it: horticulture, botany, plant pathology, entomology, agricultural engineering and economics, the list goes on. We met with Dr. Nikki Rothwell who told us all about what happens in Cherrylandia (I made up a name for this cute facility because it rests on top of a hill overlooking acres and acres of fruit trees and I want to live there so naturally I had to give it name). If you’re looking for cutting edge research regarding tart cherries then look no further than Nikki and this facility. She was so sweet and gave us more cherry information than my brain could absorb. However, I did retain the fact that she travels to Eastern Europe to study trees which I thought was remarkably sexy and then the conversation veered into Ukrainian and Polish desserts made with cherries and I just about lost it.
After our agricultural lesson we headed back to the main building where there was a festival. Local cherry vendors and events for kids were happening inside while outside I tried my best at a cherry pit spitting competition. I must tell you I didn’t do too bad but no where near as close as my new friend Chef Nathan who — get this — spit a cherry pit 42.7 feet across the parking lot. Seriously!
One of our visits included Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor. This gorgeously-manicured cherry compound houses a cafe, a tasting room, a shop and outdoor seating where we indulged in all things cherry. I’m not quite sure how I feel about cherry wine though and I’ll leave it at that. But the food and treats were delightful. It was a beautiful space and we had a great lunch and a chat with Cherry Republic’s owner Bob Sutherland. I actually didn’t want to leave.
Ok, so back to Cherry Pie. I’ve gone my whole life declining the offers of cherry pie. It just was never my thing, you know? Canned gumminess nestled in a mediocre crust has never been my favorite but being in Michigan certainly changed all that. It was a pie epiphany, a moment that will forever change my life. Real tart cherries, the perfect balance of tart and sweet, and I owe it all to this man, Bob Sutherland.
Bob said it took years to perfect his Cherry Pie. There’s not only the flavor to contend with but also the texture and mouthfeel which is important in a pie. And this right here folks, this is the real deal. This is the pie I will not be eating in California, no matter how hard I try. Michigan cherries do not travel well as their flesh is too delicate and the pits move too much during shipping, causing them to bust through the flesh itself. I’ve heard Washington state grows some tart cherries and if that’s the case I’ll fly up for pie. Or fly back to Michigan next summer because folks, it’s that good. I now understand the charm and appeal of tart cherry pie and it’s something I will never forget. In the meantime I’ll have to satisfy myself with dried cherries, juice and candies but folks, it’s just not the same. Crying, I am.
Thank you to the Cherry Marketing Institute and Phil Korson, Weber Shandwick and the ever-so-amazing Caitlin Solway, Bob Sutherland, Don and Ann Gregory (I miss those cookies and cherry tea!) as well as all my fellow cherry travelers. A very special thanks to the folks of Traverse City, Michigan for being one of these sweetest places on the planet. You all have a place to stay in Los Angeles if you visit. Not all at the same time, I mean. That’d be crazy.
And it’s not all about flavor! And all kidding aside, cherries are packed with some amazing health properties. Read about them at Choose Cherries.