Cherries got their start in the areas of ancient Turkey and Greece, making their way to Rome around 72 BC. Slowly moving up to France, King Henry VIII liked them well enough to haul them back to England (Henry was a serious foodie) in the early 1500s. They’re in exactly the same fruit family as peaches, plums, apricots, and almonds.
While many of us associate cherry blossoms with Japan, interestingly, most of those gorgeous blossoms don’t turn into fruit. Edible cherry producing trees were brought from the West in the late 1800s (believe what they were missing all those centuries). However, Japan doesn’t appreciate the fruit as we do, and pies are definitely not on most menus.
In America, due to their beautiful blossoms, cherry trees have been planted by settlers up and down the Northeast shore. Early French and Dutch immigrants planted tens of thousands in the NY city area in addition to points west, in what is now Michigan. When George Washington supposedly chopped down a cherry tree, he just might have started the ball rolling.
There are essentially two different types –sweet and sour. They have a relatively short growing season and aren’t particularly hearty trees. The U.S. is the second largest producer of cherries at 300,000 tons annually, after top producer, Turkey, which weighs in with 460,000 tons. Northwest and Midwest states grow the majority of cherries, Traverse City, Michigan reigns as the cherry capital of the world and holds a huge festival annually. Famous for their sour cherries, they feature the world’s largest cherry pie each year (bring your own vanilla ice cream). The wood of cherry trees is a popular type for furniture in the U.S.
French chefs have given their seal of approval (what more validation do you need?) And use cherries as a sauce for roast duck, flaming desserts (jubilee), crepe fillings and a popular tart called clafoutis. Americans love their pies, and cherry takes a back seat to classic apple, it still ranks in the top 5. And we love them in more ways than one:
flaming cherries jubilee
New York cherry ice cream
Snacking dried or fresh
duck with cherry sauce
Chocolate coated candy
wine and liqueur
Not only are cherries great for eating and cooking, but they tout health benefits as well, including anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory advantages, decrease risk of gout, promote better sleep, lower uric acid, all demonstrated by research at Mayo Clinic and others. Even though the season is short, they are readily available year-round in frozen and canned forms, and some groceries and health food markets sell juice and dried cherries.
The most popular sweet varieties include Rainier, Bing, and Lambert, the sour varieties belong to Royal Anne, Montmorency, Morello and Early Richmond. However, foodie president Thomas Jefferson, who was an avid gardener and horticulturist, cultivated a variety which he considered to be the best, called”Carnation.” In general, he planted two varieties of cherry trees in his enormous orchard, together with plum, peach, apple and apricot trees. He also planted numerous carnation cherry trees along several walkways at Monticello, because of their highly fragrant blossoms. A sweet dark variety, it was especially prized for eating fresh. Other varieties he integrated into his cooking. (When neighbor George Washington came to visit, were guards posted at the orchard entrance?)
So, whatever tops your hit parade, be it sweet or sour, fresh, baked or sauced, they’re among America’s most beloved fruits. Cherries. Have a bowl.