Summertime, Under the Cherry Trees

I could hear the excitement in my wife’s voice when she called me.

“I just called the farm this morning, and they told me that today’s the first day of cherry picking!”

Shortly after moving into the area, we had discovered a farm about fifteen minutes away, offering Pick-Your-Own produce throughout the growing season, and a thriving apple and pumpkin business in the fall.  While we had started with tomatoes (no longer offered, sadly), the lure of freshly-picked berries and fruit soon led us to establish a pattern, an ushering-in of summer marked by cherries, blueberries, and the occasional foray into black and red raspberries.  Of these, cherries are the most challenging, due largely to their very short window of availability.

Last year, we missed cherry picking completely because we had to be out of town for one weekend.  That’s it – just a single weekend away from home meant the difference between picking our own cherries or paying the markup at the supermarket for hardy, non-local varieties bred to survive cross-country shipment by truck.  It’s due to a combination of voracious families of pickers and a life cycle that sees cherries ripen and fall off of the trees within days.

This year, I was visiting the farm’s website every few days, hoping to see some sort of announcement regarding cherry season, but the blog remained mysteriously static as we entered the month of June.  But armed with her secret information, Jennifer decided to take her lunch break and go picking while the rest of the unsuspecting cherry-loving populace toiled away in their cubicles.  She came home with 27 pounds of cherries, filling almost three cardboard trays.

The next day, we went back for more.  Returning to the cherry trees, I could see why she had been so productive in such a short time – the trees were filled with cherries, making the use of a stepladder unnecessary.  Camping out in the midst of the branches and leaves of one tree, I made quick work of tugging gently on the ripe fruit, which popped out into my palm for transfer to my tray.  We only stayed in the field for a short while that day, knowing that the bulk of this year’s picking had already been accomplished.  A little over an hour later, we returned home with nine additional pounds of fruit.

That weekend, we lost a lot of sleep.  Planting ourselves firmly on the couch, we pitted cherries for hours as we watched movies, going to bed well past midnight only to repeat the process again the following night.  When it came time to transform the fruit into preserves, we discovered that 27 pounds of cherries never really reaches the magical temperature of 220 degrees that’s required to make the mixture firm up, no matter how long you leave it at a boil.  We canned them anyway, choosing to be satisfied with capturing the essence of summer, even if that essence wasn’t as set up as we would have preferred.

In the week that followed, I started thinking about those jars of loose preserves.  As I was driving home through typical rush hour traffic, I remembered that, when canning, jars that fail to achieve an airtight seal can always be reprocessed without any safety issues.  It then occurred to me that it may be possible to reprocess the cherry preserves in smaller batches in order to hit the right temperature.  When I got home, I opened four of the half-pint jars, dumping the contents into a saucepan over high heat.  Sure enough, within minutes the mixture was at a full boil, and soon the readout on our thermometer crept up to 220 degrees.

We reprocessed the smaller batch in boiling water, hearing the loud pop of the lids as they cooled on a kitchen towel on the counter.  Before going to bed, I grabbed one and turned it upside down, to find, happily, that the preserves had fully set.  Now, even taking into consideration that four half-pints turn into two half-pints when reprocessed, we still have enough cherries to last us well into the start of next year’s picking season.