The best cherries are irresistible: dramatically dark, bite-sized, crunchy but still melting in texture, with an intense tangy-sweet flavor that begs you to eat another.
Too often, however, cherries are small, underripe and disappointing. The saga of the California cherry industry is full of ups and downs: bumper crops and weather-induced disasters; giant, matchless cherries and mediocre, pinkish fruits; the decline of traditional growing areas and the emergence of new markets.
But for those who are careful, the state offers transcendent cherry experiences, from mouth-watering Bings to a fruit paradise in the Valley of Heart's Delight, where you can sample exquisite Coe's Transparents and legendary, outrageously flavorful Dukes.
California's cherry season, which will reach its peak in the next couple of weeks, begins in April with a gold rush near Arvin, in the southeastern corner of the Central Valley. Few Americans ever taste this crop; it's virtually all air-freighted to Japan, where brokers vie to procure the first cherries. They'll pay up to $135 for an 18-pound carton, five to 10 times what Americans will pay. The Japanese so prize cherries that they'll spend a shogun's ransom at department stores for two or three fruits in a paper cup.
Until recently, cherries were rarely grown in the southern half of the Central Valley because the hot summers caused trees to bear "spurs" and "doubles," malformed fruits. In the last decade, after breeders developed two early-bearing varieties, Brooks and Tulare, that proved resistant to this problem, growers planted several thousand acres.
On a sweltering morning at Steven Murray's ranch near Arvin, in the shadow of the Tehachapi Range, bright red fruit gleams like Christmas lights on the branches as Murray ties yellow ribbons to the trees ready for picking. While workers with metal buckets strapped to their waists maneuver tall ladders into the canopies, Murray exhorts them to pick only the darkest cherries and to be gentle when they pour the fruits into giant bins.
Last year, for once, the Arvin growers struck gold with a huge harvest. This year, more typically, a lack of the winter cold necessary for cherries to set fruit resulted in a light crop in the area. Even experimental low-chill varieties, which might potentially allow cherries to be grown as far south as Los Angeles, had few fruits.
The problem is that cherries have exacting climatic requirements. If the winter is too warm, or if it freezes or rains during bloom, fruit set suffers; if rain falls around harvest time, the cherries swell and crack open, leaving them unsalable.
Early on a harvest morning in Linden, in the heart of California's main cherry district, dew still moistens the leaves as J.P. Barbagelata roars on a three-wheeled cart around his 40-acre orchard of cherries and walnuts. Pulling up to a gnarled old tree with a 3-foot-thick trunk, he reaches out to a branch heavily laden with small, purplish-black cherries with finger-staining black juice and a remarkably nuanced blackberry-like flavor.
"When my dad arrived from Italy in 1919, the Black Tartarian was the fresh cherry grown around here," he says, popping a fruit in his mouth. "It's still my favorite for eating, but it's small and soft, so there's no demand for them, except at farmers markets. The Tarts are here strictly as a pollinator for the other trees."
He rides over to a tree of Bings, large, plump, crisp and aromatic fruits that account for more than 80% of California's crop. Fortunately for cherry lovers, the Bing tastes as good as it ships, a combination rare in the world of fruit.
In the days when growers shipped mostly to local markets, soft varieties like the Black Tartarian, known as "hearts" for their signature shape, were much appreciated for their fine flavor and tender texture. According to Edward Bunyard, the great early 20th century English philosopher of fruit, some connoisseurs considered firm-fleshed varieties "a blot on the cherry escutcheon."
But in the last 50 years, the increased importance of long-distance shipments led to the dominance of roundish, crunchy types, called bigarreaux (the name originally meant bicolored, like the yellow and red Royal Ann, but it came to refer to all firm cherries).
Although other varieties are nipping at its heels, the Bing continues to be king. Its longtime consort, the Royal Ann, has fallen from its throne. At one time the most illustrious of bigarreaux, this light-fleshed cherry with yellow skin mottled by a red blush was once California's most important variety, used for canning and brining (to make maraschinos), and beloved as a fresh fruit for its size, beauty and rich flavor.
For its time it was a giant, but the Rainier, a similar-looking but bigger, sweeter Washington-bred variety introduced in 1960, has taken its place.