Close your eyes and imagine a clear blue lake so vast that it looks like an ocean, a hilltop of trees dripping with clusters of ruby red jewels, and a food that’s tart to the taste buds yet impossibly addictive, versatile, and exploding with great nutrition. Welcome to Traverse City, Michigan, the Cherry Capital of the world. Well, make that the Tart Cherry Capital.
I was invited by The Cherry Marketing Institute to attend an educational cherry harvest event in Northern Michigan. I was compensated with travel and lodging expenses; all comments and opinions are my own.
My visit to Traverse City and the surrounding region was magical on so many levels. As a bona fide foodie, the town literally made me giddy with happiness, and I’m not making that up. Everywhere you turn, you see, smell, and taste cherries … not to mention gorgeous views of the lake. From shops like Cherry Republic that sell cherry salsa, cherry jams, and dark chocolate covered dried cherries to cherry-themed aprons, pot holders, and glassware … to cherry wine, the little crimson gem is celebrated by everyone from farmers to families who visit each year for the annual Cherry Festival. Traverse City is charmed with cherries 🙂
Don Gregory owns Cherry Bay Orchards, and he was our ambassador during the Go Tart cherry harvest tour. Don explained how cherry trees are grown on hills where the temperatures are more moderate (hot air rises!), how they thrive in sandy soil, and how 99.9% of the crop is “processed” … which turns out to be a good thing. The tart cherries (as well as the sweet ones) grown in places like Michigan are fragile, so they don’t travel well. That’s why most are “processed.” After the pits are pinched out, the cherries end up frozen, dried, or as juice or juice concentrate. (Most fresh cherries sold at markets across the U.S. are sweet cherries from places like Washington state where the fruit has less moisture and holds up better when shipped.)
Harvest season takes place in July and early August and lasts about four weeks. This piece of machinery literally shakes the cherries off the trees, and during the harvest, trees are shaken 24/7. At Cherry Bay Orchards, 40 million pounds of cherries are shaken off trees each year, and most are the tart Montmorency variety. For a 15-second video of shaking, check out my Instagram page.
The fragile fruit is quickly submerged into water baths to cool them down and cushion their short journey to the nearby processing facility. Believe it or not, this container holds 1,000 pounds of cherries plus 1,000 pounds of water!
Eating tart cherries right off the tree was a treat … and no, I did not partake in a pit spitting competition. Pictured above: tart cherries, cherry crumb pie from Grand Traverse Pie Company, cherry guacamole at Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor, cherry balsamic vinegar at Fustini’s, and snack time at the orchard.
So … moving on to nutrition. Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD was on hand to share the latest health news on tart cherries. Here are some highlights:
> Half a cup of dried cherries has nearly 50% vitamin A, and they’re also a good source of potassium and fiber.
> The antioxidant compounds found in bright red tart cherries are called anthocyanins, which reduce inflammation in the body. Those anti-inflammatory properties “cool the fire” of pain and inflammation in muscles and joints.
> Tart cherries are good for heart health. Research shows they help to lower cholesterol and reduce inflammation.
> Eating cherries may reduce the risk of a gout attack by up to 35%. Over eight million Americans have gout, so adding tart cherries to the diet could offer some welcome relief.
> Looking for a better night’s sleep? Drinking tart cherry juice (8 ounces in the morning and 8 ounces at night) may reduce insomnia and help people get more Zzzzzzs.
If you want to see more amazing photos of tart cherries check out the blog post by my RD colleague, Regan Miller Jones, at Healthy Aperture blog.
To read more about Traverse City and cherry harvest, visit the following blogs:
> Family Fresh Cooking: Very Cherry!
> Healthy Aperture: Ingredient Spotlight: Tart Cherries
> What’s Gaby Cooking: Chocolate Cherry Coconut Cookies
> Nutrition Unplugged: Happiness Does Grow on Trees: Celebrating Cherry Season in the Heart of Cherry Country
> Rose Water & Orange Blossoms: Michigan’s Tart Cherries: The Harvest, Michigan’s Tart Cherries: So Proud, Sour Cherry Galette with Cream Cheese Crust
> Family Feed Bag: Michigan Tart Cherry Chutney & Goat Cheese Crostini
> The Kitchn: How Cherries are Shaken off the Tree