Summertime means fresh cherries! As we celebrate Cherry Fest here at Whole Foods Market, we checked in with our friends at Rainier Fruit Company to get the story behind this seasonal treat. While Rainier provides us with many of the fantastic cherries we sell, one of the favorite varieties is the Rainier cherry. Known for its golden color with pink or red blush, pure yellow flesh, and firm, fine texture they are considered by many to be THE best cherry!Mark Zirkle's family has been farming in Washington State since the late 1800's, specializing in apples. About 25 years ago they began growing cherries, both dark sweet red and yellow Rainier varieties.
The Rainier cherry is a cross between a Bing and a Van, developed at Washington State University. Nearly all cherry varieties are “self-unfruitful” — meaning they must cross-pollinate with other varieties in order to produce fruit. The Rainier was originally used as a pollination variety, but as growers and consumers alike fell in love with the delicious flavor and extraordinary sweetness, Rainier Fruit Company began planting orchards dedicated to Rainiers. This single variety focus is especially important for Rainier cherries because they require specialized attention, care and labor to cultivate the most perfect cherry, showcasing the unique flavor and color of this short-season variety.
The Rainier variety is extremely delicate and it takes much more care and handling to deliver a flavorful, beautiful cherry to our stores. For example, most of the Rainier orchards are completely netted to protect them from bird damage. As the fruit reaches maturity, the birds can smell the sugar and will completely devastate a crop leaving very little behind for growers to harvest. Also, a white liner is laid on the orchard floor between the rows of trees to reflect the sun up under the tree canopy, which helps in bringing on the beautiful red or pink blush to the cherry skin.
When the fruit is ready for harvest, Rainier cherries are handpicked, gently washed and then hand-packed into small bags for transport to our stores. Mark says the biggest challenge is the very short two-week window to harvest, pack and sell these little gems. His favorite way to enjoy cherries? Straight off the tree — which he does often since it's the best indicator of when a particular orchard is ready to harvest!What’s your favorite way to enjoy Rainier cherries? Get ‘em while you can!