Editor’s note: We’d heard about the Orondo Ruby Cherry and our editorial tasting panel was impressed with this new variety. But we wanted to know more. So we sent our veteran food/travel writer and RFT Ski & Dive Editor Yvette Cardozo to Orondo, Washington, find out what the story is about this new cherry that’s making waves around the country. How do they taste? Can you cook with them? Are they really worth all the buzz? Here’s Yvette’s report:
We don’t think much about cherries … cherry types, anyway. For folks on the east coast, it’s Bings. Mention Rainiers and you get puzzled looks.
On the West Coast, especially the Northwest, there are Bings and Rainiers (and their close-related cousin Queen Annes). Which you prefer is totally an individual preference … sugar sweet Rainiers are a big hit with kids; slightly tart Bings often appeal more to the adult crowd.
So what to make of a brand new kind of cherry?
Well, the whole story is fascinating. And the taste? Kind of a cross between the Rainier and the Bing, which isn’t surprising since those cherries were probably the Orondo Ruby’s parents.
Sometime around 2001 a Bing and a Rainier did, as a friend put it, “The wild thing.” And then took a sharp left turn into unknown territory.
G&C Farms owner Marcus Griggs noticed one of his Rainier trees looked a bit different. But instead of yanking it out, he let the little critter grow. And was surprised at the result … a cherry that is both sugar sweet and also tart.
But the Orondo Ruby isn’t a hybrid.
“We did DNA tests and it has a whole different DNA,” said part owner Bart Clennon.
And then Bart and Marcus did the only natural next thing: they got a patent for their new variety. Half a dozen years, lots of paperwork and patience later, they had their patent and by then, enough of the new trees to think about making a commercial go of it all.
Growing cherry trees is more than a matter of just planting the pits. To get a plant that is true to its parent, you need to root cuttings. Then it takes another three to five years to get cherries. Then it’s more cuttings and more waiting.
Today, G&C Farms has 110,000 Orondo Ruby trees (50,000 boxes of cherries this season), which sounds like a lot but really isn’t if you’re planning to sell nationwide. But it IS barely enough.
And so this summer, the new cherry is on sale in Fred Meyer and QFC in the Northwest, Sam’s Club stores and other Kroger stores nationwide. Though the cherries have been available on the market since 2010, the supply has been extremely limited. This year, they’ve finally got enough to spread the cherries beyond the northwest.
By 2017, they hope to be producing 125,000 boxes, which would allow a comfortable commercial presence. And if that sounds like a lot, bear in mind that the entire northwest cherry crop is something like 22 million boxes.
A Different Cherry
Looking at the Orondo Rubies at first glance, you think, meh … it’s just a Rainier. But put a plate of Rainiers next to Rubies and you can see the difference. The Orondo Ruby is darker and many are uniformly red while a few have a golden blush spot. Inside, the flesh is a golden yellow.
And the taste? Of course, we had to taste.
So segue to Bart Clennon’s home high on a hill overlooking Wenatchee. There, sitting on his wife’s Italian dishware, were Rainiers, Bings and Rubies.
First the Rainier … sweet with a simple one note taste, the kind of uncomplicated flavor that, yes, kids love.
Then the Bing … Not quite as sweet with a definite tang that hits your cheeks.
And finally the Ruby. “Kapow,” said one of my friends. And kapow, it is. There’s the sugar sweetness of the Rainier with the bite of the Bing. It’s also a bit larger and noticeably firmer.
Marcus and Bart sent their cherries to Washington State University Tree Fruit Research Center where tests showed they have 20 percent more sugar and at least that much more acid than other cherries on the market.
All of this is happening in the Wenatchee area, just east of Washington state’s Cascade Mountains. Washington supplies some 80 percent of the US cherry market.
Turns out this is a great year to finally go nationwide. This year’s cherry crop is one of the best in years– sweeter and larger cherries all around. Credit this spring’s ideal cherry weather. “Mild and dry. said Bart. “You couldn’t ask for better conditions.”
Cookin’ with Rubies
At Wenatchee’s Pybus Market, cafes are featuring cherry dishes. The market, set up in a shuttered steel mill, was reborn a year ago with some two dozen shops, produce stores and cafes. Think mini Pike Place Market, Seattle’s iconic indoor-outdoor market.
At South, a Latin flavor cafe, we tried pork tacos with cherry salsa … just enough sweet to set off the salty pork. And also a cherry martini. Then on to Fire for a crisp crust pizza with goat cheese setting off the bacon and cherries. And finally, our favorite, the comfit fried pork belly with pickled cherries along with smoked pork loin with cherry barbecue sauce.
Yes we were full-to-bursting. Yes, I ate every morsel of that final dish.
And then, the next day, we went to G&C’s orchid, picked some fruit and visited the mother tree, which is now about 15 years old but still bearing fruit. It stood there, thick trunked and wide (though we didn’t get to see the fruit because it had just been picked).
But high up hung a couple of stubborn cherry survivors. Just out of our reach so we could look but not taste.
Still, I had a container of Rubies I had picked myself. And I got to share them at home with friends. –Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor
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