I’ve had memorable experiences with two kinds of cherries in my life, and, with due respect to America’s reigning cherry champion, neither of them were Bings. The first: A few years ago, my wife and I arrived in Seattle at the height of Rainier cherry season, and we ate so many of those effervescent fruits that we managed to give ourselves jumbo-sized stomach aches. And yet, the very next day, we ordered another pound at the Pike Place Market. The second: Since childhood, I’ve been making summer trips to Door County, Wisconsin, with my family, and those trips have always included one (or more) pies made with the local celebrity fruit: the bold, tart Montmorency cherry, which flourishes along the Great Lakes.
You won’t have any trouble finding a good slice of pie in Door County, but if you have a car and a bit of free time, I recommend Seaquist Orchards Farm Market in Sister Bay. Their pie is no-frills but perfectly balanced. And if you’re looking to buy frozen cherries, you can pick up anywhere from two-and-a-half to thirty pounds of Montmorencies.
Montmorencies make the best cherry pie you’ll ever have, with an ideal balance of sweetness and tart kick.
If you live in a northern climate and have a backyard with enough room for a fruit tree, you don’t need to travel for sour cherries. Not long after we bought our home, about twelve years ago, a friend gave us a cherry tree. After a few years of growth, it started producing bountiful crops of fruit, and the more we try to prune it to keep it out of the power lines that we foolishly planted our sapling beneath, the more it seems to produce the following year.
One of the strongest arguments for growing a cherry tree is that you get to harvest your cherries each summer. Cherry harvesting is an activity that brings me—and may bring you—close to a state of zen. You’re up on a ladder, working to maintain your balance and awareness of your surroundings. You’re assessing the cherries: This one, not yet ripe, this one too ripe, this one… Perfect! You’re reaching out to grab as many cherries as you can, careful not to overextend yourself but eager to get that one last cluster of jewel-toned, sun-drenched fruit that is just barely within reach.
You’re watching your basket fill up with fruit, fruit that cost you nothing but labor, fruit that will make pies, crisps, and breads as tasty as anything the best bakery can offer. Your mind is overloaded, but the stuff you’re processing is so tactile, so sensual, and so ancient that you come down from the ladder not with a basket full of cherries and peace of mind.
Once you get your cherries back inside, processing is joyfully tedious, or maybe tediously joyful. You simply pit your cherries on a sheet pan, spread them out, and freeze them, juice and all, until you can scrape them into bags for long-term frozen storage. I’ve used year-old cherries with excellent results. They seem to degrade very little when properly stored. You may be tempted to use a cherry pitter to pit your fruit, but I find that a clean pair of hands is a faster tool. If you give a tart cherry a gentle squeeze near the top, the pit slides out, and you can easily toss into the compost while you move on to the next one. It takes a while to figure it out, but once you’ve got the muscle memory, you can really cruise.
The cherry has many culinary applications. There’s pie, of course. Montmorencies make the best cherry pie you’ll ever have, with an ideal balance of sweetness and tart kick. We often use our frozen cherries to make a pie-filling-like pancake topping that elevates a weekday breakfast to a legitimate celebration: 1 cup of cherries plus ¼ cup of sugar plus 1 tsp. of corn starch in a sauté pan. Heat through while stirring until bubbling. Easy as pie. Actually, much easier than pie.
Wisconsinites swear by a concoction called cherry bounce. I’m one of them. Combine sour cherries, brandy, and sugar, let the mixture sit for a few months, and you’ve got a holiday treat. If you go harder on the sugar, you’ll get something like a cordial or liqueur. With a gentler hand, you’ll get a more refined drink that’s better for mixing bold, stiff cocktails.
And finally, if you combine 2 cups of pitted cherries, 2 cups of water, and 1 ½ cups of sugar, then bring the mixture to a boil and simmer it for 10 minutes, you can blend that and strain it into a bottle to make an amazing homemade cherry syrup that keeps well in the fridge. A few tablespoons of that over ice with club soda will give you the best cherry soda you’ve ever tried. You can combine cherry brandy, cherry syrup, and club soda to make an extremely potable cocktail that I haven’t yet gotten around to naming. A Cherry Bomb? A Brandy Jubilee? I’ll keep trying.