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Sep 02, 2014
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Cherry-picking June Flavor
By Pat Eby • Photo by Carmen Troesser
Posted On: 06/01/2010   

When tart cherries fully ripen, hundreds of hungry birds swarm the trees, denuding even the tallest in a single day. I’ve watched birds peck the ground under my favorite tree, slurping fermenting cherries until they swoop away loopy. I totally get it. Tart cherries taste so terrific everybody wants some of that goodness.

This year, tart cherries – the slightly smaller variety that’s often used for pies and other baked dishes – may be a bit slim at the markets near St. Louis. An early frost nipped cherry production at Scharf Family Farm near Milstadt. The Mitchell Farm won’t have cherries, either; the ice storms two winters ago damaged its cherry trees so severely that the Mitchells were forced to cut them down.

But even in a good year, tart cherries aren’t abundant, making them plenty pricey. Picking cherries isn’t hard, but when each cherry is no bigger than a marble, it takes work to fill a quart.

Luckily, the trees at Thierbach Orchard and Berry Farm in Marthasville, Mo., are loaded with sour red Montmorency cherries. It’s a pick-your-own orchard, located near the farm’s strawberry and blueberry patches; the cherries begin ripening around the first of June, overlapping with the strawberry and blueberry seasons. On Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings in June, you might be able to buy the cherries already picked at the Washington, Mo., farmers’ market.

The cherry orchard sits on Town Branch Road just off state Route 47, 8 miles from Washington, Mo. When you reach the orchard, pull in and park near the tent, where you’ll find flats and quarts. Pickers bringing their own containers should have them weighed first, as the fruit sells by the pound.

Bring one cooler with a picnic and one nearly empty cooler with some ice for the cherry haul. Topping cubes with an old, thick towel or freezing water in capped plastic bottles keeps water from your harvest.

“Cherries need to be kept cool,” said owner Susie Thierbach. “Don’t wash cherries or berries until you’re ready to use them, because they begin to break down in water.” Thierbach freezes pitted unwashed cherries whole in quart bags. If customers don’t have a cherry pitter, she suggests using a paper clip to pop the hard seed from each small fruit. A mean task, but totally necessary if you value your dental work.

Once they’ve thawed, Thierbach rinses the fruits and bakes, usually in winter. “My family eats tart cherries right off the tree, fresh. We’re too busy to do much [else with them] during the season.”

The fruit hangs within reach on low branches, but three-legged orchard ladders are available for aerial enthusiasts. I’m a stems-on picker. Cherries start to brown as soon as the skin is broken, so it’s worth taking a bit of extra time to carefully pull them off the tree, stem on, to preserve the translucent red color. Once you’ve baked a cherry cobbler in the middle of winter or spread your toast with cherry jam on a snowy day, the work seems worth the effort.

In season, try fresh cherry soup with sour cream, orange juice and zest, and sweet white wine. (Travel a little farther to nearby Hermann and pick up a Vignoles if you want to keep it local.) For cherry shortcakes and for sauce for ice cream, cook the fruit on the stovetop with sugar for about half an hour. The cherry salsas with spicy chile peppers taste great with pork and chicken. This summer, I want to try a mango-cherry salsa with fennel for grilled fish.

“Our cherry orchard is in its fifth year,” said Thierbach. “Our trees are loaded with cherries – we have enough for everyone, including the birds. The farm’s been in my husband’s mother’s family for four generations, but he planted the orchards himself. He loves planting fruit trees. We have peaches and apples. Gooseberries and blackberries, too.”

Picking’s family-friendly, too. Kid ambassadors Elise and Wesley Thierbach, aged 7 and 6 respectively, often greet visitors. They like to play and pick. And eat. “We lose some berries when kids step on them. They’ll eat some, too, but picking, visiting a farm – that’s how children learn where food comes from. That’s OK with me.”

What a great road trip, fun for foodies and families alike.

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