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In the VALLEY of the CHERRIES

The only problem is that you have to go get the cherries from the trees yourself--though for some people that's the fun of it.

June 06, 1996|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

In the Middle Ages--and until recently in some parts--the cherry fair was a great festival. People wandered about the orchards; the fruit was picked and sold; there was dancing, drinking and making love (a few years ago there were still some old people in our Wiltshire village with birthdays nine months after). . . .

--"Jane Grigson's Fruit Book"

It's probably safe to go back to the Leona Valley now. The cherry fair was last weekend, although the wandering, picking, selling and all the rest of it will last until about the Fourth of July. Not to worry. About as licentious as anything gets out here is a second helping of the splendid peanut butter pie they make at Jackie's, the local diner.

Of course, if the only cherries you've ever eaten were the standard industrial variety, the whole notion of a cherry fair must be pretty mysterious. After all, it's pretty hard to work up much romance about a tiny, rock-hard fruit that's been trucked all the way from Washington.

But really ripe cherries are a fruit apart. They're deep red, burnished almost to black when dead ripe--the kind of ripe you almost never see anymore, even at farmers markets.

When you pick one of these cherries and pop it into your mouth, the flavor is mouth-filling--an explosive combination of sweet and tangy. The texture is delicate and almost silky. It's a shock to remember that cherries are not supposed to crunch when eaten. The only problem is that you have to go get the cherries from the trees yourself--though for some people that's the fun of it.

In Southern California, the center of the U-Pick cherry universe is the Leona Valley, a tiny community atop the San Andreas fault, just a ridge away from the dusty sprawl of Palmdale.

If it wasn't for a happy conjunction of climate, economics and personality, the Leona Valley might be just another anonymous rural outpost biding its time, waiting to be swallowed up by the city that surrounds it.

But for thousands of urban dwellers, the Leona Valley means cherries, and once a year, every year, they load their minivans with kids, cousins and a good picnic lunch and make the trek up through Canyon Country to one of the 30-odd U-Pick cherry farms. To wander among the trees. To harvest some fruit. To see food at its source. To take part in the age-old celebration of the coming of summer.

Visiting the orchard of Don Hobart, one of--if not the--oldest growers in the area, the lure is easy to understand. Tasting one of his cherries and walking away is next to impossible. This is more than a human weakness. When the breeze picks up through the trees, there's a pinging and tinkling of dozens of pie plates hung to keep away hungry birds.

"That noise keeps them antsy," says Hobart, a friendly, rumpled man. "I don't want to keep them from pecking; in addition to eating some cherries, they eat a lot of the bugs that could cause trouble. I just want to keep them from overdosing."

He's so solicitous of his birds--the whole Leona Valley, he says, is a bird country club--that one Bing cherry tree may not even be picked this year. There's a dove's nest in it, and if the fledglings aren't flying by the time its cherries are ripe, they say they'll rope off the tree, which they call Mother's Tree.

Hobart, a retired Los Angeles City fireman, and his late mentor Abe Shapiro planted trees on a 5-acre lot in 1959, well before anyone in the little valley ever dreamed of cherry fairs. At that time the only cherries in the area were almost accidental, just a couple of trees in somebody's yard. But that was enough to let Hobart and Shapiro know that, despite the firm advice of the county farm agent, cherries could be grown here.

Before that, Shaprio had grown cherries in Cherry Valley, out near Banning, on the road to Palm Springs. "There were a lot of cherries there in those days," Hobart says of Cherry Valley. "But not anymore. We went through enough of those 110- to 120-degree days that would just cook the cherries like raisins, and then we started looking around."

They discovered the Leona Valley. "This place is really ideal," Hobart says.

Cherries are a tough fruit to grow, especially in Southern California. It's a small miracle that the Leona Valley does as well as it does.

Cherries need a certain amount of elevation in Southern California to get the winter cold they need to set fruit. Hobart says 2,500 to 3,500 feet is optimal and, while that kind of altitude is scarce, his orchard is at 3,200 feet. Cherries also need water, which--thanks to wells--is not in as short supply in the valley as it is the rest of the region.

But even under the best of circumstances, cherries are a notoriously fickle fruit.

Obstacles that might be molehills for other tree fruit turn into mountains with cherries. Too much cold in the spring; too little cold in the winter. Too much rain; not enough rain. Sun; clouds. To get a good cherry crop, everything must be just so.

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