Every day, the dogs and I walk through the cherry and apple orchards behind our house and visit the ravines that cut across east to west with their majestic oaks, maples, and nut trees. It’s a never-failing source of pleasure to be surrounded by trees, whether cultivated for crops or natural; and the dogs and I never take our walk without silently tipping our virtual caps to Linda Allison, and Leo and Dan DeVries, and Lee and Brenda Johnson, whose orchards we are so lucky to have for our walks. Those of us not involved in farming can only partly appreciate the risk and work it takes to bring a crop to market. We see the early morning and late evening mowing and cultivating and spraying, and watch the frenzy of harvest with only a dim idea of the amount of labour and nail-biting that goes on behind the scenes.
This year, I notice that the sour cherry crop is light compared to other years. When I mention this to Linda, the real weight of my observation becomes clear: depending on the micro-climate within Pelham, the cherry crop is down from 50 per cent to more than 80 per cent! Imagine that you put in the same amount of work, invested the same amount of money in your business or job… and at the end of the year had your pay reduced by half to three quarters. The culprit this year was the cool, damp spring. The bees that the farmers rented from beekeepers took one look outside their hives and decided to stay in and play cards or knit sweaters rather than go out and pollinate the trees. In our area, south of Highway 20, the bees got maybe two days of work in during the two weeks for which they were hired. The result is clear to see on the trees now: fewer sour cherries hanging from the branches, with some trees having almost no fruit at all.
Most of Niagara’s sour cherry crop goes to Michigan for processing and shows up back on our supermarket shelves and freezers as pie filling, and no wonder because sour cherries make pie that is nothing less than divine. Of course, getting the cherries when they are fresh and unprocessed improves the flavour, and cherries freeze very well, so it’s a good idea to stock up at this time of year for cherry pie all year long. If you aren’t a confident pie baker, or would rather defer to the talents and expertise of truly accomplished pie bakers, I suggest you take in the Talent Night Auction at Pelham Community Church on Canboro Road. Cherry pies and contracts to bake cherry pies are up for bids, and if you can outbid the church’s regulars who are in the know, you will experience the absolute pinnacle of the baker’s art, created by people with generations of pie baking behind them.
But sour cherries aren’t only about pie. How about a Sour Cherry Cabernet Gastrique… a cherry and wine reduction… to accompany game? The recipe comes from Michael and Anna Olsons’ Inn on the Twenty Coookbook and is simple to make and simply delicious with duck. Put 1 ½ Cups of cabernet wine, 1 ½ Cups of red wine vinegar, 2 Cups of sugar, and 1 Cup of sour cherries into a saucepan and simmer until the sauce is reduced by 2/3 and coats the back of a spoon. The brilliant dark red colour adds accent to the plate, and the taste sets the meat up perfectly.
Another delicious way to serve sour cherries is as a salsa to accompany lighter meats like pork. This recipe comes from June’s Bon Appetit . Simply combine ½ Cup of chopped fresh cilantro, ¼ Cup of minced shallots, 2 Tablespoons of lime juice, ½ pound of fresh sour cherries (pitted and halved), 1 minced chile (choose one that has the degree of heat that you like… jalapenos are good), and 1 Tablespoon of olive oil. Mix together to let the flavours combine, and serve alongside grilled pork tenderloin. Enjoy!