15 July 2011

Ah, Bings

Lapins waiting for the Market Photo T. Baird

A peculiar thing happens with fruit when it’s selected for mass production, taste isn’t a consideration. Shelf-life, yields, culivars that lend themselves to processing, and thick-skinned varieties that can travel 1000s of miles are more valuable than the best-tasting, slow-growing, sun-ripened, soft fleshed fruits.

The result: titular tomatoes, so-called delicious apples that aren’t really at all, and strawberries as flavorful as red cotton – I’m tempted to complain that nothing is like it used to be…like some sort of a foodie Andy Rooney. It’s not quite the fruitocalypse yet, every once in a while the taste wins.

Meet the Bing Cherry

In 1875, a workman at Seth Lewelling’s Milwaukie nursery discovered a new variety of cherry. The Lewellings, agricultural pioneers in Oregon, are a hybrid themselves – imagine a cross of Luther Burbank and Johnny Appleseed. The family was driven from the pre-Civil War Midwest for their antislavery views and if legend is believed, the Lewellings kept walking across the country until they reached Oregon, often diverting drinking water to the saplings they were carrying. The Bing, a fluke pollination, was discovered on a Republican, that was the name of the parent seed tree, not a political bent, the pollinator was unknown. In a story already infused with legend, the Bing apparently is named after the Chinese nurseryman who noticed and realized the potential of the fruit, Ah Bing.

The Bing would quickly dominate the sweet cherry market. 65% of the sweet cherries grown are Bings – no other sweet variety exceeds 10%. Understandably too, the Bing produces heavy yields (many cherries per tree), it’s thick skin protects the fruit during shipping but here is the amazing part, and this almost never happens, the fruit tastes really good. Sweet, with a touch of tartness, the Bing possesses a rich palate of flavor – hints of almond, clove and plum orbit the deep-rich cherry taste. The Bing is incredibly sophisticated but still approachable, worthy to be held up as an example that mass-produced fruit doesn’t have to be insipid.

The Bing has one defect though, if it rains close to harvest the cherries split, bruise and discolor. In California, because of land and irrigation expenses, a late rain force growers into action – helicopters are called in to help dry Bings to preserve the harvest. Closer to home, such drastic action isn’t employed, the heavy yields and acreage under cultivation means ultimately there will be some saleable crop. Plus we’re a little more used to rain and make accommodations.

Because of this flaw, growers are switching to different strains like the Brooks. The Brooks is an early yielding variety and there is always a premium with being the first of the season. My problem with the Brooks, compared to the Bing it’s meh. That and the Brooks lacks a cool back story, boringly introduced in 1988 by Cal (Go Bears). Sure, mostly because they come in early, the Brooks hit the spot, but give me the Bing or give me, I don’t know, or give me canned cherries.

Shh, dont tell the birds about thesePhoto T. Baird

Which might be my choice this year. Trevor Baird says this year’s Bing crop was small but flavorful and is gone. The Baird Family Orchards are gearing up this week to sell Lapins, a bigger, lighter-skinned cherry that doesn’t suffer from splitting like Bings. Trevor texted me to let me know after the Lapin’s there will be Morellos, if the birds leave some. Arguably, neither are quite as good out of hand, but both will work brilliantly in Clafoutis – due to my Midwestern upbringing I am unable to pronounce any French word properly, so I like to call it – Baked Crepe Custard Cake. Keep an eye out though, because our growers produce on diverse microclimates, there might for a few more Markets anyway, be Bings floating around. Scoop them up while you can.