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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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08.26.07

Oh, Cherry

Food History


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(with apologies to Steve Perry)

Taken at face value, Prunus might be assumed to have something to do with prunes. However, in actuality, all stone fruits are members of the genus Prunus. Of course, plums (and future prunes) are members, but Prunus avium and Prunus cerasus happen to be cherries.

Cherries are unusual in having their point of origin described as an entire hemisphere—the northern one. Since prehistoric times, cherries have grown across Europe, Asia, and North America. Most of the cultivated species came from western Asia and Eastern Europe, but there were varieties everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, waiting to be crossbred.

Another thing that makes cherries unusual is that the wild precursors of cultivated cherries have not been lost—and in fact have not been abandoned. Wild cherries still enjoy wide popularity. This is a distinct peculiarity among domesticated plant foods with long histories.

While the use of wild cherries stretches back through prehistory, the cultivation of cherries is first mentioned by the Greeks in around 300 BC, suggesting that cultivation probably started a bit earlier. Many historians and lexicographers say that the Greeks got their word for the fruit, kerasos, from the name of the town of Cerasus in Asia Minor (now Giresun in Turkey). However, others maintain that the town was in fact named for the cherries. But then that leaves us wondering still where the word cherry originated. Either way, the association with the town reflects the western Asian origin of cherry cultivation. The town’s name can also be seen unchanged in the name of one species of cherry. Like many other words (pease, kudos, eaves), the nearest linguistic ancestor of the English word—cherise—sounded too much like it was plural, and in time became cherry.

The Roman Empire being what it was—an absorber of all it liked from wherever it went—it is probably not too surprising that Italy became a major cherry grower during the time of the Empire. Pliny the Elder attributed the introduction of cherries to the Roman general Lucullus, though it seems likely that Lucullus simply introduced a new species of cultivated cherry when he returned from fighting in Asia Minor. Whatever the generals’ contribution, we know that there were cherries being cultivated in Italy by the time of Lucullus (117–around 56 BC). However, the other thing the Romans were good at was spreading stuff, and Pliny mentions that the several varieties of cherry being cultivated in Rome had been introduced as far away as Britain.

Cherries did well in Britain, and by the 1600s, there were at least two dozen named varieties growing in Merry Olde England—the 1600s being significant in that this was the time that colonists were beginning to head from England to the New World. The varieties that had done well in England were soon being planted in New England. But the French, too, took cherry pits with them when they began to explore, and cherries were soon growing in France’s colonies, as well.

There were cherry trees throughout the colonies, but big-time cherry growing didn’t really happen in the U.S. until the 1800s. In 1852, a Presbyterian missionary named Peter Dougherty planted the first cherry orchard on Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City. Dougherty had been warned that his plantings would fail, but they didn’t—they did fabulously well. In 1893, the first commercial cherry orchard, Ridgewood Farm, was planted near the site of Dougherty’s original orchard. Ridgewood Farm helped start Michigan’s cherry industry. Within a few years, tart cherry production had bypassed other crops produced in the region, with orchards spreading from Traverse City all along Lake Michigan, from Benton Harbor to Elk Rapids.

The first cherry processing facility, Traverse City Canning Company, was built just south of Traverse City. Eventually, cherries were being shipped from Traverse City, Michigan, to markets all over the country. Today, the five counties around Traverse City produce 40 percent of the annual tart cherry crop in the United States, and Traverse City is known nationally as the “Cherry Capital of the World.”

Cherries favor temperate regions. While they don’t like it too frigid, they won’t bloom at all without a cold winter. And for some species of cherry, it’s all about blooming. Almost none of the ornamental species favored in Asia, and most particularly Japan, bear fruit, or if they do bear fruit, it is inedible. They are grown entirely for their beautiful flowers. It is from among these purely decorative Japanese species that Washington, D. C. got its famous blossoming cherries (and, unfortunately, it was from this same gift from Japan’s government that the Oriental fruit moth was introduced into the U.S.). But even those not grown for their blossoms still have blossoms and need those chilly winters.

While there are many species of cherry, there are two main species that are grown for their fruit: sweet cherries (Prunus avium) and sour cherries (Prunus cerasus). In addition, there are cherries known as dukes, which are crosses between sweet and sour cherries. (The Germans call dukes Bastardkirschen.) Sweet cherries are heart-shaped, range in color from purplish black to red to golden, and include all the common eating cherries.

Sour cherries are smaller, softer, and more spherical than sweet cherries. They are also known as tart cherries, cooking cherries, and pie cherries. While some people do enjoy eating sour cherries fresh, most people agree that they benefit from cooking, usually with sugar. But they are wonderful in a wide range of applications, with a bright, intense flavor that cannot be duplicated using sweet cherries. Montmorency is the primary tart cherry grown in the United States today.

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