May is cherry blossom time in parts of the Midwest and Traverse City, Michigan has one of America’s most impressive displays of this fabulous fruit. Can you imagine how beautiful 2.6 million blooming cherry trees must be. Traverse City bills itself as the “Cherry Capital of the World.” With 75% of the world’s tart cherries, used for pies, pastries and jams, produced in and around the Traverse City area, they have good reason to make such a claim.
Taking place several weeks before the start of the formal tourist season, few people get to witness this beautiful display. “It’s one of our big secrets,” says Sarah West of Chateau Chantal, a 65-acre vineyard and winery estate on the nearby Old Mission Peninsula, in the heart of Traverse City’s fruit-growing country.
Most of the cherry orchards are located on two peninsulas that lie just to the north of the city: the Leelanau Peninsula, along the Lake Michigan shore, and the Old Mission Peninsula, which runs for 20 miles up the center of Grand Traverse Bay. Renowned for their natural beauty, these two peninsulas are bathed by deep glacial lakes and bays that create an unusually mild “microclimate” with cool springs, dry summers and long warm autumns that extend the growing season well into October.
First to bloom are the sweet cherries – about 600,000 of them. Within a few days, the sweet cherries are joined by two million tart cherry trees. Unlike the ornamental cherries familiar to visitors to Washington D.C., these blossoms are pure white. (From a distance some trees seem to carry hints of pink from their red twigs, while others take on a touch of light green from the emerging leaves around them.) The color intensifies within a week, however, when light pink blossoms of 670,000 apple trees suddenly appear.
The mild microclimate that makes this all possible doesn’t guarantee that the cherry bloom will happen at the same time every year. There are wide variations in onset and duration of the blossoms from one season to the next – as early as May 5 and as late as May 28 -- and even from one orchard to the next. Generally speaking, areas farthest away from deep water tend to bloom earlier and finish more quickly, than those along the coast – and often the difference can be as much as a week.
Wouldn’t you agree that such a dramatic display calls for celebration? The rapid growth of the Traverse City’s wine industry has brought new spring visitors to the area. Local area wineries have begun promoting the blossom season as a time to enjoy spring’s distinctive culinary treasures – tender asparagus shoots, sweet strawberries, and the delectable morel mushrooms gathered in the local forests. All accompanied, of course, by the region’s distinctively fruity wines.
Chateau Chantal was the first winery to widen the popularity of the celebration by collaborating with other Old Mission Peninsula vineyards and restaurants on an event called Blossom Days. Today the festival – held the weekend of May 18-19 -- includes barrel tastings of reserve vintages from the peninsula’s five wineries and special menu offerings at local restaurants, but it still retains some of its original religious flavor. There’s still a Blessing of the Blossoms on Sunday.
“It’s really our way of getting the growing season off to a good start by asking for a good year and a plentiful harvest,” says West. “But what’s nice for the visitors is that this is one of the few times when the winemakers have the time to hang out and talk with them in the cellars and show them a little of what they do.”
It wasn’t long before the wineries and restaurants of the Leelanau Peninsula created their own spring blossom event. Called the “Spring Sip & Savor,” it mixes “New Release” wine-tastings and gourmet meals at 19 of the peninsula’s wineries. This year’s event is being held May 4-5.
For many visitors, the best part of the season is simply getting out and driving along the winding peninsula roads to see the thousands of flowering trees set against the green grass, the yellow dandelions and the deep blue waters of the lake.
For more information about Blossom Days, the Spring Sip & Savor and other spring attractions and events in the Traverse City area – and for a complete listing of other lodging and dining options – contact the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-TRAVERSE or on line at www.TraverseCity.com
Here’s a great cherry recipe from Judy LaCross a local cherry farmer.
Quick 'n' Cherry Chicken
· 2 lbs. chicken breasts
· 2 T. margarine
· 1/4 c. chopped onion
· 3 T. cherry jam
· 3-4 T. wine or cherry vinegar
· 1/2 c. whipping cream
· 1/2 c. dried cherries
Melt margarine in skillet. Cook breasts on each side to brown, add onion and cook 10 minutes or until chicken is tender and cooked through. Be careful not to scorch. Remove from skillet and keep warm.
Add jam and vinegar to skillet, cook slowly and stir. Boil 1-2 minutes. Slowly add cream, stirring constantly on medium heat until hot but not boiling. Add dried cherries. Plate up the chicken with wild or brown rice and green veggies. LaCross likes pea pods or fresh green beans. Drizzle the sauce over the rice and chicken, dividing it to cover all servings (about 3-4). Serve with mixed greens and vinaigrette dressing, sprinkled with feta cheese and dried cherries.
— Judy LaCross