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Bing! Go the Strings of Their Hearts

June 04, 1992|KITTY MORSE | Kitty Morse is a writer and cookbook author living in Vista.

You know summer is just around the corner, when boxes full of cherries appear on the market. Although the climate tends to be a little warm to make the lovely cherry trees a part of the North County landscape, some areas of Southern California are ideally suited to the production of the festive fruit.

The origins of the cherry remain unclear to this day. Lucullus, a leading Roman gourmet, is credited with popularizing the fruit among his countrymen. Other sources assert that the cherry, which is related to the peach and the plum as well as to members of the rose family, is a native of Asia Minor. Wild cherries were once abundant in Southern Europe. In fact, the farmers around Modena in Italy still claim to produce the world's finest.

Cherries reached American shores in 1629, when early settlers planted a few trees in Massachusetts. After that, the tree's popularity increased to such a point that Colonial gardens weren't considered complete without at least one cherry tree.

A horticulturalist by the name of Henderson Luelling brought a few trees to Oregon in his covered wagon in the early 1800s. In 1885, cherries migrated south to Cherry Valley, at the edge of the desert, outside Beaumont, in Riverside County. Luckily for North County consumers, the town is within easy driving distance, and every year thousands of visitors flock to Beaumont to pick their own fruit.

One such U-PICK establishment is Parks Cherry Ranch, where Stella Parks has allowed do-it-yourselfers to pick their own fruit for more than 20 years. Parks predicts a bumper crop this year. "I haven't seen such a mild winter in the 20 years I've been here," she said. The winter contrasts dramatically with that of 1978, Parks said. That year, 18 inches of snow covered the valley floor.

Parks, president of the Cherry Growers Assn. for the past seven years, still speaks in the soft drawl of her native Oklahoma. Her 4-acre back yard is covered in cherry trees abloom in pink and white.

"This year's crop is a bit late because of the cool nights," Parks said as she gently bent the limb of a tree to examine the tiny blossoms. A delicate flurry of pink cherry petals settled on her shoulders.

The cherry grower enjoys singling out her favorites. There is the Royal Ann, favored for making maraschino cherries; the Lambert, with its white gossamer blossoms; the Jubilee, especially well-adapted to the Southern California climate; the unusual Black Tartarian, and the Hardy Giant, which, as its name implies, grows to a colossal size.

"I went to look at them earlier and they were really large," Parks said, a note of delight in her voice. "They're soooo good!" The orchard even includes her namesake, the Stella, as well as plenty of the all-time consumer favorite, the Bing.

"These flowers suffered from May drop," Parks said, closely examining the diminutive blossoms clinging to one of the tree's branches. "It's simply nature's way of getting rid of excess blooms."

Still, this year the record bloom is expected to yield a bountiful crop. To ensure pickers reach home with only top-quality fruit, Parks prevents anyone from leaving the property with anything but paper bags or specially designed cardboard boxes. Cherries are meant to be treated with respect: "We don't allow anyone to put their cherries in a plastic bag," she said. "This encourages sweat and mold."

Parks and other growers in Cherry Valley furnish boxes and paper bags to the U-pickers. Since the crop depends so much on the weather, make sure to call ahead for picking dates and for prices, which are based on availability.

Marilyn Legerat is also a longtime resident of Cherry Valley. An acclaimed local baker and caterer specializing in unique cakes, Legerat saw an opportunity when she and her husband first moved to the area.

"There was no one in the Valley who made cherry pies, and I thought it was terrible," she said. To remedy the situation, she opened her cherry pie shop more than 14 years ago. It soon became a local landmark.

"The recipe is a family secret," she said. "But I can tell you I use all-natural ingredients. My pies have a whole-wheat crust, and I sweeten them with honey and brown sugar." Legerat likes to use sour pie cherries for her specialty, and includes 3 pounds of them in each pie. In addition to her pies, she makes "a real Hungarian cherry strudel," and another that is half cherry and half apple, "so everyone can enjoy a piece of either fruit," she said.

Legerat purchases cherries from local growers in order to make breads, cherry cookies and cherry cider.

Cherry hot line, (714) 845-3628. Call for most current information on picking sites. This year, the U-pick season begins Saturday and is expected to continue through July 4, depending on availability. Ranches are generally open daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The annual cherry festival will be held from June 17-21, with a parade June 20. Orchard tours by appointment only. Unless a freeze harms the crop, cherries should be abundant.

Marilyn's Bakery and Catering, 10218 Beaumont Ave., Cherry Valley. (714) 845-1767 and (714) 845-3088. Pie shop hours: 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., open through June, closed July and August, reopens from September to December. Cherry pies, $7.99 each; cherry strudel, $6.85 each.

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