Yes you heard me right, sour (tart) cherries are now ripe and ready for picking in the Leona Valley (just North of Los Angeles, CA near Palmdale). SOUR cherries?? you’re probably thinking, why would I want those? Because, let me tell you my friend, they are the way to true cherry pie bliss.
And cherry jam bliss…
and real Maraschino (pronounced “maraskino”) cherry bliss.
I have to admit that two years ago I had never tried a sour cherry. To be fair to myself though, most Californians haven’t. It’s more of an East coast/European/Persian thing. Why that is, I’m not really sure. Maybe because sweet cherries grow so well here.
This all started when I discovered the Manhattan cocktail a few years back. I loved this cocktail, but hated the garish garnish. For some reason those noxious things people call “maraschino” cherries just freak me out. I knew there must be something more. What was the origin or inspiration for these cherries?. A little googling around and I was on to something.
The first Maraschino cherries were cooked up somewhere on the Dalmatian coast near Croatia and Italy. They were made from small, black, sour cherries that grow wild on the hillsides around those parts. Their name was the Marasca cherry. A sweet liqueur known as Maraschino had long since been distilled from the fruit, stones (pits), and leaves of these wild cherry trees, but until the 1800’s no one had ever tried to pickle the Marascas in their own liqueur.
Some years later American tourists discovered Maraschino cherries and brought jars home to share with their friends. They were a big hit and news spread quickly. Before long, they were all the rage in America’s finest saloons acting as garnish for delicious pre-prohibition cocktails like the Manhattan. But, sad as it is, the salad days of the real Maraschino cherry in America were numbered. Things changed when a guy from Oregon, with too many cherries (and chemicals) on his hands, developed a way to preserve them in a less than appetizing way.
How on Earth did these offensively colored new substitutes catch on? I can only guess. I’m sure the Temperance Movement didn’t help. God forbid children should be tempted to sneak one of these liquor soaked cherries!
The new and improved “Maraschino Americano” was also incredibly cheap compared to the imported varieties, and you know how we Americans are when it comes to the cost of food. The cheaper the better.
Thus began my personal quest to re-create the original Maraschino cherry as closely as I could. A google search for “sour cherries Los Angeles” yielded few results, but I finally found what I was looking for. It was a place called Cherry Tyme Sour Cherries in the Leona Valley about an hour and a half North of Los Angeles. Bingo, I thought!
But wait, it was August and all the sour cherries were long gone according to the pleasant lady on the phone. I had just missed the season! As you can imagine I was devastated, but the lady offered me one bit of consolation. I could leave her my e-mail address and the next year they would let me know when the season opens.
Sure enough, the next July I received an e-mail stating it was “Cherry Tyme!” I recruited my dad to go up there with me and help pick. We came away with 13 pounds of fresh, sour cherries of three different varieties: Montmorency, Balaton, and Morello. The Montmorency were large, pale, very sour, and extremely delicate. I used them for my pies, and they left me with memories I won’t soon forget. The Balatons were small, firm, dark skinned, and not quite as sour as the Montmorency. I thought these seemed most like the wild Marasca cherries of the old country, and used them for my Maraschino cherries with great results. It’s been a year since I put them up and they’re still firm and delicious! The Morello cherries were medium sized, dark fleshed, sour, and very flavorful. For some reason they were the most attractive to me. They embody a perfect balance between the other two varieties, and I used them to make my preserves.
Pitting was a bit of a challenge without a proper cherry pitting tool, but we got pretty good with bamboo skewers after the first hundred or so.
The fun starts tomorrow morning June 27th at Cherry Tyme in Leona Valley. Their hours are from 8:30 am to 4:00 pm; open daily until all the cherries are gone. Bring your own boxes!
Cherry Tyme Sour Cherries:
39913 107th St West
Leona Valley, Ca 93551
Hope to see you there! Recipes coming soon.