Steinbeck once opined that summer's warmth -- or for our purposes, fruit -- wouldn't achieve its sweetness without the cold of winter. Truth is revealed in the harvests; without a decent chill time and hibernation, stone fruit trees don't yield their best. Last year's first cherry harvests were amazing, thanks to long, steadily cold weather and perfectly-timed rainstorms followed by a gentle springtime warming. Cherry season puffed out deep into late June with gorgeous, rich and creamy fruit. It was the kind of year cherry farmers will get wistful about a decade from now.
This year, not so much. There were no significant weather tragedies -- no late frosts or heavy rains to split near-ripe fruit still on the trees -- but the winter just wasn't quite right in some regions, and there wasn't nearly enough rain. A little bit of localized heat in other areas has caused fruit spurring or doubling. Not a deal killer -- the fruit is still good eating -- but given the choice, consumers prefer a nice round single fruit.
Generally speaking, the early crops do look good, but the season will be short. Some say four weeks, tops. Given that we started seeing the first cherries -- some early Burlats from Mark Boujikian Farms -- last week, it's advisable to get your cherry fix in now.
The weather challenges faced by the cherries affect other stone fruits a little differently. Jaws routinely dropped -- perhaps predictably -- this past weekend as people walked by large piles of green plums, nectarines, peaches and apricots. Thank a stretch of recent heat for the early and even highly sweet harvests. Pictures posted online yielded the inevitable question: "Yeah, but are they actually good?"
First-of-the-season fruit will always have to fight a bad rep. And even mediocre cherries taste pretty good after a long, citrusy winter. But that burst of heat made all the difference, and even farms with much later stone fruit harvest dates are predicting market harvests weeks before normal.
"My dad was out at the trees last week and said, 'next week, maybe two more,'" says Terri Kashima from K&K Ranch out in Orosi, where their apricots don't usually come down until June. "It's been really hot, which pushed the ripening ahead a bit."
Early fruit is generally small, but even the tiny racquetball-sized yellow peaches at Regier Farms pack a flavor punch: tart, nearly sharp and citric, but well-balanced with some of that heat-spurred honey sweetness. They'll be around, with necessary switches in varieties, well into fall.
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