Last week was a momentous one. It felt like any other week really, but it marked the first time harvesting my very own produce and then selling that directly to the community. While I meticulously picked over each cherry tree, I felt that familiar inner tension that often pulls me in opposing directions and felt compelled to convey it to eaters, so that they may better understand the processes, both physical and mental, behind those delightfully sweet little fruits.
I am still only approaching a full year as an orchardist so it’s also my first time managing fruit trees through spring and into summer. Empress, Earlise and Early Burlat are early ripening varieties of cherry and for me they mark the start of summer and the harvest season. I’ve been watching them closely. Waiting. Apprehension building. Preparing for the right moment to begin the complex task of harvesting the first wave of fruit – picking for colour.
Unsurprisingly, the fruit on a tree does not all ripen perfectly together all at the same time. Nature’s beauty and resilience lies in her inconsistency, but it certainly adds complexity to any endeavour that involves working with her. ‘Picking for colour’ is the process of harvesting all those fruits that have ripened first, leaving behind the ones that have not yet matured, so that they may be harvested when they are at their most flavoursome. It involves assessing the colour of the fruit and deciding if the time is right. In this case, I was aiming for only the deep purple cherries. Sounds simple, right?
When you look at a bunch of cherries it is easy to see which are the darker shades of purple. With infinite shades, the line between ripe and not quite ripe is hard to define, but even that is not too difficult. What is challenging is the context in which you decide on each piece of fruit. You see, once you decide on which are the darkest, ripest cherries and remove them, the frame of reference changes. Suddenly, relative to those around it, the next darkest look ready to go. Yeh, actually on second thought they’re looking good, I’ll take them too. And then the next darkest again. I’m fairly sure it’s Einstein’s theory of relativity that, ‘one can only assess the colour of a cherry relative to the colour of those that surround it’.
Continuous taste testing is one method I use to try to align a particular shade of colour with an acceptable level of flavour in my mind (hello cherry coma – not complaining). Holding that image in my mind’s eye, I inevitably come across many a cherry that is right in the line. Then I get to agonise over whether it’s better to harvest now, slightly below itss full potential, or leave it on the tree where it may get damaged by pests or over-ripen and be lost.
Then there’s the physical task of picking only particular cherries from a tree. It involves a certain dexterity that I haven’t yet used and am developing with practice. To grab a ripe bunch of cherries from within a tangle of unripe ones is tricky and to remove a single purple cherry from a bunch is a precise task that probably takes too much time to warrant – but I tend to get caught up in the details.
Ultimately, after an hour struggling through these multi-layered decisions that must be made in an instant, every instant, what I am left with is a box of fruit as close to perfectly ripe as I can get but of a range of ripeness. I’ve done my best to supress the paralysing indecision and just roll with instinct. I’ve picked the best quality fruit I can see and I’m hoping that my customers will experience the explosion of sweetness that is a perfect cherry.
So, next time you bite into a piece of fruit that tastes as though it has not reached its potential, savour it. Transport yourself to the cherry tree and experience the decisions that lead to its harvest. Consider its subtlety of flavour as inextricably linked to the deliciousness of the next. For the same theory of relativity applies to taste as does to colour. If they were all so sweet, they would be less special. The confluence of energies that culminate in eating a perfect piece of fruit is no less than astounding. How lucky are we to behold such food and to have access to local, agroecologically grown produce. I implore you to take each mildly flavoured fruit as a subtle reminder of this brilliance.
For those that want a truly immersive experience – I’ll be announcing pick-your-own days in the coming weeks! Or better yet, Katie and Hugh can teach you how to grow your very own trees with their Grow Great Fruit program and you can experience the joys of food production first hand.
From all the feed-back I was getting at the markets, I succeeded in my task of providing the best quality, freshly picked fruit I can. With each joyful remark on the cherries I was selling, I felt the inner tension dissolve and morph into an inner smile. Working with nature’s inconsistency to provide fruit that is safe, nutritious, looks good and is enjoyable, is a challenge that will continue and one that I am loving and am ready to meet.