Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Elusive Tart Cherry of Northern Michigan

Picture taken with my Blackberry Storm (I'm not talented like Matt Armendariz)

When he was by, the birds such pleasure took
That some would sing, some other in their bills
Would bring him mulberries and ripe-red cherries

--Shakespeare, "Venus and Adonis," ll. 1101-3

The Cherry Marketing Institute invited me to attend an educational cherry immersion event in Traverse City, Michigan. The Cherry Marketing Institute (CMI) is a nonprofit national promotion organization that is funded by U.S. tart cherry growers. I was joined by some pretty amazing bloggers, photographers, professional chefs and dietitians. I loved that we were there during the National Cherry Festival.

We all learned a great deal about cherries from our guide Phil Korson, President of the Cherry Marketing Institute. The wonderful team from Weber Shandwick enriched our time in Traverse City by being generous hosts who took us to the most beautiful places in Northern Michigan. I am very grateful to them all.

The Boathouse Restaurant

Our table at the Boathouse Restaurant overlooking Bower's Harbor

Our welcome dinner was at the Boathouse Restaurant. Owner Doug Kosch makes sure his restaurant uses the "farm to table" concept. He grows most of the restaurant's vegetables, fruits and herbs with his wife on their farm .

We were treated like royalty by Chef Eric Nittolo. Every dish he created had a cherry theme. It was exquisite and something I will never forget! It was after 8 pm and the sun was still shining above Bower's Harbor.

My cherry martini

We began with cherry cocktails and I had the perfect cherry martini. We then started our four course dinner! The servers brought out plates with duck, cheese and a fresh salad with goat cheese, walnuts, apples, spinach, beets and cherry vinaigrette dressing. Then, we had a main course choice of ahi tuna or filet mignon. I selected the filet mignon even though I rarely eat red meat! It was so tender and had a tart, but slightly sweet cherry sauce.

Filet Mignon

Chef Eric made cherries jubilee for dessert. It was like a work of art, plus it tasted so good! (Remember - Everything in moderation! Yes, you can eat it.)

Cherries Jubilee

Cherries Have a Wide Array of Health Benefits

Dr Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, MA, RD talks about the health benefits of cherries

Dr. Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, MA, RD, helped us understand the science behind the succulent red fruit. Her presentation taught us that cherries are a homegrown super fruit with a wide array of health benefits.

I will post about the health benefits of cherries soon, but here are a few quick facts:

- Tart cherries contain at least 17 antioxidants.

- Anthocyanins 1 and 2 are important antioxidants found in cherries. They can block enzymes (COX-1 and COX-2) that are involved with the pain and inflammation of arthritis and gout.

- Anthocyanins are the plant pigments that give cherries their rich red color.

- Anthocyanins also have anti-inflammatory properties and may inhibit the growth of colon cancer tumors.

- There are 30 to 40 mg of anthocyanins 1 and 2 in 100 grams of fruit. Anthocyanins 1 and 2 are not found in blueberries or cranberries.

- Tart cherries also are rich in the antioxidants kaempferol and quercetin.

- Research shows that tart cherries contain high levels of melatonin, a powerful antioxidant that can eliminate free radicals. (free radicals are toxins involved in diseases such as cancer, heart disease, etc.) Melatonin also helps regulate natural sleep patterns!

- Montmorency cherries contain almost 6 times more melatonin than Balaton cherries.

- Tart cherries contain 19 times the beta carotene of blueberries and strawberries.

- Cherries are also rich in fiber, vitamin C, iron, folate. potassium and magnesium.

*I'll also talk about ways to add tart cherries and tart cherry juice to your diet in a future post.

Cherry Orchards

Don Gregory talking about tart cherries!

We had the opportunity to spend time with Don and Ann Gregory who took us on a tour of their cherry orchard. They are part of Shoreline Fruit and work with growers, processors and marketers to produce the finest dried fruits and tart cherry concentrate. I felt lucky to find their Cherry Bay Orchards products at my local grocery store over the weekend!

We learned about the growth of cherry trees, harvesting, processing, drying and everything in between!

Don Gregory showing off his tart cherries

Did you know that during harvest season, the orchards are active 24 hours a day? Workers have to work day and night until the harvest is complete. After the cherries are harvested (by shaking the trees with a very big machine) they are taken to a cooling pad where a hydro-cooling system cools the cherries to 35 degrees.

Matt shaking the cherries

Harvesting/shaking cherries

I was excited to shake some cherry trees!

Thanks Brian for shooting the video!

The cherry cooling station!

Cherry Republic

Taken with my Blackberry Storm

After our journey to Gregory Farms, we arrived at Cherry Republic in beautiful Glen Arbor, Michigan. Prepare to be amazed! Cherry Republic is the largest retailer of cherries in the entire world! All I can say is that Cherry Republic is like a little Cherry heaven. I want to build a house a few feet away and eat there every day!

Bob Sutherland is the genius behind Cherry Republic. He started the company on his own and built a cherry empire! Bob was generous and gave us all a cherry filled lunch. I eat pork only a few times a year, but I couldn't resist the pulled pork sandwich smothered in cherry bbq sauce in between freshly baked cherry bread. The cherry chicken salad was also something to write home about. Then there was the pie...

Cherry Republic Pie - Taken with my Blackberry Storm

Make sure to go to Cherry Republic when you visit Northern Michigan and please try a piece of their cherry pie. It isn’t your ordinary canned cherry pie. It is truly a phenomenal taste experience! Imagine juicy tart cherries amongst sweetness and a perfect, flaky crust. You must also pick up some cherry salsa, cherry bbq sauce, cherry jam, tart cherry juice and even cherry wine!

Cherry products at Cherry Republic

I went back to Cherry Republic the next day and bought a whole cherry pie to take home. I also brought home some cherry salsa, cherry jam, cherry pasta sauce, cherry coffee, cherry tea and dark chocolate covered cherries! Can you tell I love their products?

Michigan Horticultural Research Station

Michigan Horticultural Research Station

We ended our trip at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station. The Northwest Station is a multidisciplinary horticultural facility focusing on fruit production. They specialize in tart and sweet cherries, but they do research on many other fruits as well. Dr. Nikki Rothwell, took us on a tour of the orchards and talked about the research they do on all the varieties of cherries. I plan to go back there next year because I fell ill and wasn’t able to go into the orchards to try all the delectable varieties of cherries. I guess 2 weeks of having a fever will do that to you!

Michigan Born and Never Tried a Fresh Tart Cherry!

I was born and raised in Southeastern Michigan. I spent many summers in Traverse City and fell in love with the beauty of the city and the peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan. I always loved attending the Traverse City National Cherry Festival and sometimes enjoyed a fresh tart cherry pie and other cherry delicacies. However, I will admit that I never tasted a fresh tart cherry in my life. I was pleasantly surprised! Mr. Gregory let us pick some tart cherries off his trees and I fell in love at first bite. The tart cherry is delicate and bursts the second you bite into it. Tart cherries are definitely tart, but in a good way. I could have eaten an entire tree, although one tree can grow 7,000 cherries depending on the age of the tree, weather and growing conditions.

Michigan Tart Cherries

Cherries are usually classified as sweet or tart. Sweet cherries include many varieties such as Bing, Lambert Royal Anne, Van and Rainer. They are mostly grown in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The most popular tart cherry varieties are Montmorency and Balaton. They are produced primarily in Michigan, but are also grown in New York, Utah and Wisconsin. Tart cherries generally bloom in May and are harvested in July. Tart cherries usually ripen two or three weeks after sweet cherries. The cherries were ready early this year because of the weather.

Northern Michigan is considered the cherry capital of the nation. Michigan grows 75 percent of the nation's tart cherries. The climate is perfect for growing ruby red tart cherries because of the Great Lakes, the sandy soil, the chilly winters and moderate summers. A tart cherry tree can grow almost anywhere, but Michigan is the best area since the trees produce more abundant and better quality fruit. I noticed that the majority of the cherry orchards are concentrated along Lake Michigan. Mr. Gregory explained that the lake cools the orchards in the summer.

Most people recognize tart cherries as sour cherries or pie cherries. They are typically used in desserts, but we’re definitely finding more innovative ways to use tart cherries. Cherries are more versatile than you'd think.

Why We Don’t See Fresh Tart Cherries at Stores

Tart cherries are rarely sold fresh. They can be found where they are locally grown and at farmers markets, but it’s difficult to find them anywhere else. Tart cherries are very fragile, so they are hard to ship. Also, the red color is affected by heat and light. The tart cherries turn brown or discolor when exposed to light.

Go to
Choose Cherries to find cherry recipes and more information about cherries.

A BIG thank you to the wonderful Weber Shandwick team! It was great to meet Caitlin, Brian, Theresa and Sydney. You all made my trip incredible! Also, thank you Phil Korson and the Cherry Marketing Institute. I can't forget the people from the National Cherry festival, Don and Ann Gregory, Dr. Nikki Rothwell, Bob Sutherland from Cherry Republic, Doug Kosch and Chef Eric Nittolo from the Boathouse Restaurant and the Park Place Hotel.

*All photos were shot with my Blackberry Storm, Kodak mini camera or Flip Cam. If you want to see professional photos of our time in Traverse City, please go to:

Matt Bites (Matt Armendariz)

A Southern Fairytale (Rachel Matthews)

Food, Drinks and Rock 'N Roll (Chef Nathan Lippy)

Check out the Flickr photo group too:


~JEWEL~ said...

WOW thank you! Very imformative. I have worked in the sweet cherry harvest since I was 15 and didn't know many of the facts about cherries healthy properties.
I learned that they pick the tarts differently then we do the ripe black sweet cherries. We couldn't use a machine like that.
After reading this article I know now to use more tart cherries in cooking/baking. The dark sweets are better for eating then using in that manner.

They sure treated you good on the trip and they food looked and sounds so good.

Thanks Dina for a very imformative article. Please do follow up with more info!

Brian P. said...

Awesome post! So glad you enjoyed the experience. That Cherries Jubilee was amazing, the pictures make me want to make another trip or atleast figure out how to make it at home! :-)

Dina said...

Thank you Jewel :) It's so cool that you worked in the sweet cherry harvest. You should come to Michigan and see tart cherries. We have sweet cherries too.

Thanks Brian! I also want more of the Cherries Jubilee. I could eat it every day!

matt said...

What a fantastic post! And your photos are great! Was so nice meeting you, please give the lil creatures kisses from me!

Beth Reed said...

Wow - what a fabulous experience you had! I can honestly say I've never even tried a tart cherry (though I am a big fan of the sweet dark cherries). The food looked delish, and it was so interesting to read about the processes they use in such detail. :) I am a new follower from MBC and would love for you to come visit me at http://www.createyourtraditions.com sometime. :)