You may be a self-professed tart cherry aficionado, but do you know how Traverse City and the surrounding area came to be known as the Cherry Capital of the World? And here’s a bonus question worthy of Trivia Night: Can you name the differences between a Montmorency and a Balaton cherry?
Cherry Capital of the World
Let’s start with the illustrious Cherry Capital title. In the mid-19th century, a Presbyterian missionary named Peter Dougherty was in search of a crop that would flourish in the sandy soil and unique microclimate found on Traverse City’s Old Mission Peninsula. He discovered the perfect fruit with the Montmorency — a tart (or ‘sour’) cherry variety grown in Montmorency, France — and planted his first orchard of cherry trees in the 1860s. By 1900, Traverse City had become the largest producer of tart cherries in the country.
Fast forward to today. A full 50% of the nation’s tart cherry supply still comes from our humble 5-county region (which includes Leelanau County, home to Cherry Republic), and the mighty Montmorency still reigns as king. At the Republic, we proudly feature Montmorency cherries (a/k/a ‘ruby red morsels of joy’) in the vast majority of our products. We even celebrate the very first tart cherry harvest of the summer with our Montmorency Nouveau Preserves. This amazing feat of time and talent usually takes place in mid-July and witnesses the creation of jam from tree to table in less than 24 hours.
Introducing the Balaton Cherry
Then a few weeks later, sometime in early to mid-August, there’s a new Nouveau in town. That would be our Balaton Nouveau Jam, made from — you guessed it — the first harvest of the Balaton cherry of the season. Relatively new on the scene, the Balaton cherry was introduced to the United States in the 1980s by Dr. Amy Iezzoni, a horticulture professor at Michigan State University. Dr. Iezzoni had been traveling through Hungary on the hunt for heartier tart cherry varieties that might bloom later and thus avoid the occasional Northern Michigan late freeze. It was here she discovered the Balaton.
(Extra trivia points: Named for Lake Balaton Western Hungary, the Balaton cherry is actually grown in the village of Újfehértó in the far eastern portion of the country, nearer to Ukraine and Romania. But according to Dr. Iezzoni, the word “Balaton” was one of the few Hungarian words Americans would find easy to pronounce, so that’s what stuck.)
While the Montmorency and the Balaton both share the distinction of being in the tart cherry category, that’s where the similarities end. An Amarelle tart, the mighty Montmorency has bright red skin, but inside its flesh is clear. The Balaton, in contrast, is a Morello cherry and features a darker burgundy colored skin that continues straight through this plump fruit. The Balaton also offers more of a robust sweet-and-tart flavor as compared to the mainly tart Montmorency, which is usually the preferred fruit for pies and other desserts.
So while we’ll always be partial to the granddaddy of Michigan’s famous tart cherries — the Montmorency — we’ll also hold a place in our hearts (and on our shelves) each August for that other, slightly sweeter ruby red morsel of joy, the Hungarian Balaton.