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I just baked my first cherry pie. The scent of it tortures me as I try to let it cool before digging in. As I write, I notice my computer screen, spattered with sticky, dark red juice, shows telltale signs cherry pitting while listening to an online radio show.
I have had a series of “firsts” over the past few weeks - all involving Levering Orchard in Ararat, VA. Levering Orchard began as an apple orchard in 1908 in the “thermal belt” on the southeastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Thanks to an insightful and risk-taking Sam Levering a huge block of apple trees was pushed down and replaced with cherry trees in the 1970’s. Thirty years after Sam’s first planting, Levering orchard is the largest cherry orchard in the south with over 4,000 cherry trees and 43 varieties.
I first learned of Levering Orchard from the Slow Food Piedmont Triad website a few weeks ago when I read that they were planning a trip there for cherry picking and a slow potluck. Cherry picking?? I had always thought of cherries as a west coast luxury that I would occassionly enjoy a small handful at a time. I emailed Charlie Headington to ask about the event, and he invited me along.
On the drive up, I was surprised by how quickly the scene changed just north of Mount Airy. It was beautiful! Lush, deep green, rolling hills and roadside produce stands abounded. I had gotten lost and was late to the SFPT cherry picking so I went hastily to work upon arrival. I wanted to get as many cherries as possible in the 1 1/2 hours I had left to pick. I grabbed a bucket and struck out to the first group of trees I saw.
Until then, I had not imagined the tall, skinny wooden ladder that I would be climbing. I hesitated and look around at a few other trees attempting to find one with whose ladder looked secure enough for my first climb. I grew up in the country, but in the land of pine trees, sweet potatoes, and cotton fields. I was new at this. I soon realized if I wanted to fill my bucket in such a short time, hanging around the picked over lower branches was not going to cut it. I got braver and higher, and the cherries got fatter and juicier and more abundant.
After filling my bucket, I got to share a meal with SFPT and meet lots of great folks. Frank Levering and Wanda Urbanska, who now own and operate the orchard, talked about running the orchard, living simply, and what’s showing at Cherry Orchard Theatre this summer. Frank talked about cherry seasons being very hit or miss. I have since learned that cherries, the first deciduous fruit crop of the season, are susceptible to all sorts of misfortunes. The heavy spring rains of the Blue Ridge Mountains can wipe out the entire crop, as can a late freeze and swarms of blackbirds. There is a commonly held stereotype that cherry growers must either have nerves of steel or be totally crazy. I’d say a at least a healthy dose of optimism is required!
Whatever next season holds for Levering Orchard, nature has been kind to them this year. The bumper crop that I enjoyed on my first visit was even more evident two weeks later. On my second visit, I brought along a friend and her 7-year old son. At a more leisurely pace, we was able to wander about the orchard and sample lots of different cherries. The cherries were so plentiful we had to stop ourselves from picking too many on any one tree so we could sample lots of different varieties. I found some beautiful white and yellow varieties that I had never seen before and even stumbled onto a tree of ripe and ready to pick apricots! We saw lots of peaches and apples promising late summer and fall harvests.
As a baker I have always envied California for its abundance of locally available seasonal fruits. But here it is still June, and I have already sampled cherries, apricots, peaches, blueberries, blackberries, rasberries, and wineberries from within 125 miles of my home. I could get used to this!
View more pictures of Lindsay, Rick, and me picking cherries.