Sour cherries’ fleeting season came early for Washington this year, and the fruit seemed to vanish from farmers markets by the second week in July. Experts agree: Sour/tart ones make the best cherry pie. Yet I have quarts of fresh Montmorency specimens from Upstate New York to pit today. Most surprising, I found them at the grocery store — a venue where they generally do not appear, because of their juicy and delicate constitutions.
“It’s the quart box,” says Andy Orbaker of Orbaker’s Fruit Farm, referring to the sturdy, green No. 5 plastic cage with a hinged, locking lid and clear protective cover to boot. He tried shipping his tart cherries in clamshell packs, which created too much spoilage and held too much residual heat. Wood baskets didn’t pan out, either. So Orbaker helped develop this well-ventilated container, and it does the job.
The 100-plus-year-old family farm does its part to keep the fruit in good condition, too. At 6 each morning of the few weeks of tart cherry season, some 38 workers pick the fruit by hand and pack it straight into these quart boxes, right in the 35-acre grove. The boxes go right to a warehouse where they are chilled down to 34 degrees, to be shipped out the next morning. (A mechanical harvester follows the pickers, and the cherries shaken off the trees will be processed for jams and juice.) It’s important to keep the stems on the hand-picked cherries, Orbaker says, to reduce tearing and the introduction of mold.
Orbaker’s farm has sold its tart cherries via Ahold Delhaize-owned stores, including Stop & Shop and Giant, for several years. They went into Whole Foods Markets on the East Coast just this year. I spotted them at both places in the District this week. It’s important to note that these cherries have not been washed, as it says on the box, and you’ll need to do that just before eating or cooking them.
The last of the season has been picked and is headed our way. Orbaker says he’s grateful to get his local product down to stores in the Washington area. As his tart cherries have effectively given us another few shots at getting pitted cherries into the freezer for making out-of-season handpies and such, I tossed that gratitude back at him.
If you’re a lucky shopper, you may find Orbaker’s cherries featured with a display of his grandmother’s old-fashioned pie recipe; of course, our Recipe Finder has choice ways to deal with them, like Tiffany MacIsaac’s easy crumb bars, pictured above, or a Serbian cherry pie or Cathy Barrow’s cherry liqueur. You could even toss them into this brown rice salad with chickpeas, mixing them in with a sweet-cherry variety.
Meatless eating and summer produce shine in readers’ most-viewed recipes online:
1. Grilled Corn Four Ways. This has remained atop the list for good reason.
2. Garlicky Marinated Tomatoes. Julia Turshen’s easy and versatile side dish, and one of five ways to deploy summer’s peak vegetables.
3. Chickpea Tikka Masala. A vegan take; from #WeeknightVegetarian and “Love Real Food” author Kathryne Taylor.
4. Crispy, Smoky Skillet Corn, pictured above. You can use oil instead, but bacon fat’s the secret here; also from Turshen.
5. Black Beans and Greens With Avocado and Za’atar. It’s what to cook when you don’t feel like cooking.