Now that the snow has finally melted around here and the trees and plants and flowers are coming into full bloom, Michiganders are once again reminded of one of the major reasons why we live here in the first place – fresh fruit; especially cherries, and not just any cherries, but sour cherries.
As you know, Michigan has been the source of 80% of all tart cherries grown in the United States for decades – the vast majority being the Montmorency variety. In 1981, however, Dr. Amy Iezzoni began a research program at Michigan State University to identify tart cherry varieties with better fruit quality and disease resistance. She soon began a collaborative effort with scientists in Hungary, the ancestral home of tart cherries and the center of a similar investigative effort that had started after World War II.
In 1986, researchers from MSU and Hungary jointly released a variety called Bunched of Újfehértói (the Hungarian name) in the United States under the newly trademarked name Balaton®. As the story goes, the name was selected both to recognize the variety’s Hungarian heritage and because Lake Balaton is one of the few places in Hungary familiar to most Americans.
I “discovered” Balaton cherries about five years ago at the aptly named Cherry Street Market in Kalkaska, Michigan. To my (very unprofessional) eye, Balatons look very similar to sweet cherries. They are about the same size and have the same almost ruby color – unlike the Montmorency cherries which are somewhat smaller and fire engine red. The primary difference (in my view) is the taste. Balaton cherries have a richer flavor – more tartness and at the same time more sweetness. They also retain their beautiful color during cooking. Balaton cherry pies are not only delicious; they are a work of culinary art. The red color is magnificent! (Stand by for pictures – it’s not cherry season quite yet.)
There is some bad news, however. Even after almost three decades Balaton cherries are still not widely available. Beginning typically in mid-July, you can find Balaton cherries in some fruit markets in western Michigan (south of Traverse City) and in Chicago. You can also get them at Overhiser Orchards in South Haven – even pitted if you choose. Act quickly though. The season is short, the supply is limited, and the demand is growing each year.
P.S. My Tart Cherry Pie recipe works equally well with any tart cherry variety – fresh or frozen.