By Carolyn Malcoun, "Cherry Picking,"May/June 2012
I was in Leelanau County, Michigan, visiting my aunt and uncle a few summers ago, when one afternoon I went “grocery shopping” with my aunt. We drove along, winding up and down hills covered in orchards and grapevines to tiny farmstands and farm markets piled with the best fruits and vegetables the area had to offer. At one market, we were lucky enough to nab some sweet cherries from Bardenhagen Farms. I took one taste and realized how perfect cherries are meant to taste—they had a balance of sweet and tart and were so firm and fresh they snapped when I bit into them. We took them back to my Aunt Penny’s and made cherry pie with a flaky crust, which we ate while it was still a little warm.
Pictured Recipe: Honey-Sweetened Cherry Pie
Leelanau County covers a narrow finger of land that juts into Lake Michigan near Traverse City, about a 4 1/2 -hour drive northwest of Detroit. This region of Michigan is famous for cherries, especially sour ones (also called tart cherries). More than 12,000 acres of Leelanau are blanketed with cherry orchards, and this county alone is responsible for about one-fifth of the nation’s sour-cherry crop. The area has a perfect storm of factors—hilly terrain, proximity to a massive body of water and sandy soil—that makes it ideal. On chilly nights, the heavier cold air sinks down into the valley, keeping the temperatures on the hilltop orchards moderate. Lake Michigan keeps temperatures cool in the spring to prevent the trees from blossoming before the threat of frost disappears. And the sandy soils drain well, which is ideal for growing healthy cherry trees.
When I returned to Leelanau recently, I had to visit the source of those cherries. I drove up the road to Bardenhagen Farms, which covers 80 acres of rolling hills in the town of Suttons Bay. Jim Bardenhagen farms mostly Montmorency (sour) cherries, on the same land his great-great-grandfather homesteaded more than 100 years ago. He also grows Balatons, a sweeter, firmer variety of sour cherry from Hungary, and several sweet varieties, including Attika, Summit and Regina. “Attika seems to hit everyone’s flavor buds,” he says. But you won’t find the popular sweet Bing cherry in Michigan. “They crack in a fog,” Bardenhagen quipped to me in his farmhouse kitchen. While the California and Washington seasons start in May and continue through June (almost 80 percent of the sweet cherries in the U.S. are grown in these two states), the sweet-cherry season doesn’t begin in Michigan until early July—one variety ripening after another—and runs about two weeks. Then the sour Montmorencys and Balatons kick in for a couple of weeks.
As Bardenhagen and I walked in the lush orchard, I plucked a Montmorency off a tree. I squeezed out the pit and popped the supple cherry in my mouth, puckering with pleasure. I started thinking of the pies, sauces, salads and breakfasts I’d make with these sublime fruits. With these recipes, I hope to share a small taste of summer on the sunny shores of Lake Michigan.