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NewCityNet Cherry Jubilee

Time to pop a cherry

By A. LaBan

AUGUST 10, 1998:  Cherries are named after the Turkish town of Cerasus. Said to date as far back as 300 B.C., cherries were valued over the centuries for taste as well as beauty. Historically, the fruit was also thought to be both an aphrodisiac and an analgesic, able to relieve the pain of gout and arthritis. Hence the stories of old men seeking young brides with "lips like cherries."

Cherries have long been an orchard staple of the Midwest. European settlers had barely landed in the New World before they began planting cherry trees. Early French colonists from Normandy brought pits to plant along the Saint Lawrence River and the Great Lakes.

Peter Dougherty, a Presbyterian missionary, is credited with planting the first cherry orchard and founding the cherry industry as a commercial enterprise in the Midwest. Against the advice of local Indians who had grown other fruits in the area, Dougherty planted a cherry orchard in 1852 on the Old Mission Peninsula, a narrow strip of land that juts into Grand Traverse Bay near Traverse City, Michigan.

Much to the surprise of the Indians, Dougherty's cherry trees flourished and soon other residents of the area planted trees. The area proved to be ideal for growing cherries, with the region's sandy soil and rolling hills as well as the climatic lake effects of Grand Traverse Bay and nearby Lake Michigan, which help temper Arctic winds in winter and cool the orchards in summer.

Although large-scale cherry orchards were planted in Door County, Wisconsin, which offers growing conditions similar to Michigan; in Utah east of Salt Lake City; and in Montana's Flathead Valley, Michigan's Traverse City area is today the acknowledged cherry capital of the world. About 40 percent of Michigan's annual production of 200-250 million pounds of tart cherries grown on 2 million trees in 36,000 acres of orchards is produced in this five-county region.

There are 7,000 tart cherries on an average tree, enough for about twenty-eight pies. Michigan's cherries are predominantly the tart varieties. There are two kinds of cherries - sweet, which are eaten raw by the handful and grown mostly in California and the Pacific Northwest (the Lambert and Bing varieties, for example) and the smaller tart, also called "sour," berries, (the Montmorency and Morello, for instance), which are canned, frozen, juiced and made into jams, jellies and pastry and pie fillings.

Michigan produces a much smaller quantity of sweet cherries, also mainly grown in the Grand Traverse region. Most of Michigan's sweet cherries are turned into maraschino cherries. Maraschino, by the way, comes from the Italian word for a pungent liqueur - distilled in Croatia and Italy from a bitter Dalmationa wild cherry called the "marasca" - in which cultivated cherries were once steeped until appropriately fortified. Today, commercial maraschinos owe their fiery glow to food coloring.

Cherries are one of the truly seasonal fruits, available only May through August. Cherry season is celebrated in Michigan with the well-known Traverse City Cherry Festival, held every July and attended by some 500,000 visitors over eight days. Just prior to that festival, there's also the International Pit Spit Competition, which takes place annually in Eau Claire, Michigan. In 1988, hometown hero Rick Kraus made it into the Guinness Book of Records for a second time with a superior spit of 72 feet, 7.5 inches - a good twelve feet farther than a pitcher throws a baseball to the plate.

In support of old wives' tales, research at Michigan State University has found cherries to be an excellent source of compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Antioxidants are generally recognized as useful in the prevention of cancer, cardiovascular disease and other illnesses. In addition, antioxidants may slow the aging process. Tart cherries also contain natural anti-inflammatory compounds, which laboratory tests indicate are at least ten times more active than aspirin. Further, tart cherry components are suspected to have the ability to inhibit the enzymes that ultimately cause joint pain.

When buying cherries, choose brightly colored, shiny, plump fruit. Sweet cherries should be firm, but not hard; tart varieties should be medium-firm. While stemmed cherries are a better buy, those with stems last longer. Cherries tend to absorb odors, so store them away from strong-smelling foods. And because they spoil quickly, keep cherries refrigerated in a plastic bag with holes to preserve their moisture and freshness for several days. Suzy Crofton of Crofton on Wells is a fan of the fruit and recommends her Cherry Clafoutis, a tart from the Limousin area of France. A special treat featured occasionally on the menu, Crofton serves the dessert with white peach ice cream or "creme fraiche." "Cherries are delicious, naturally sweet fruit," says Crofton. "They don't need to be fussed with and are perfect for simple desserts."

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