Cherry season has arrived at Bardenhagen Farms in Suttons Bay, Michigan. Friend of the farm and chef Mario Batali shares his experience from a recent visit. In the kitchen, we cook up a summer menu to celebrate the cherry in all its glory, from cocktails to barbecue sauce.
Credit: Photo: Justin Walker

Nestled between Lake Leelanau and Grand Traverse Bay on Michigan's northern peninsula is a stunning landscape of cherry orchards, home to the most incredible, ruby-red fruits you will ever taste. The deliciousness dates back to the 1950s, when Vernon Bardenhagen planted the first cherry tree on his family's land, Bardenhagen Farms, which has been a success since the end of the Civil War and a special place. I've adored visiting during my summers in Michigan.

Vernon's legacy now lives on through his son Jim, who is the quintessence of a relentlessly dedicated Midwestern farmer. His effort to protect other local farms has let the treasured terrain thrive, popularizing Traverse City's nickname as the Cherry Capital. Every July during the peak of harvest season, cherry lovers from around the world attend the city's National Cherry Festival, where they can taste just about every Michigan-grown variety. The plump, sour Balaton cherry and the sweet, golden Emperor Francis make my mouth water even now. Perhaps what I love most about visiting an orchard are the crimson stains that line the winding roads, a result of a farmer's swift turn (causing cherries to fly out of the truck) and a true symbol of summer.

When I bite into a perfectly tart cherry—whether it's by the handful on the beach or in my wife Susi's iconic pie—I'm transported into a dreamy state where I can fully relish the agricultural identify of Northern Michigan. It's really something to see how one adventurous farmer turned a small Midwestern town into a beloved gastronomic destination.

On the Farm

Credit: Photo: Justin Walker

Jim Bardenhagen takes a bit of a cherry to test for ripeness. The dark, sweet cherries are ready for harvest when the skin and flesh have a deep burgundy color and the sweetness is right. "We have to be careful that they don't get too ripe or the stems won't stay on," he says. Bardenhagen's wife, Janeen, helps run the farm. Their children, Chris and Ginger, and their families, who will soon inherit the farm, always help during the harvest. "We round up everyone we can get ahold of," he says.

Credit: Photo: Justin Walker

Cherry trees grow to about 12 to 16 feet tall, just high enough for a standard ladder, and fruit after about six or seven years.

Credit: Photo: Justin Walker

All fresh cherries are hand-picked so as not to damage the fruit or lose the stems. Only processed cherries—dried, frozen, or canned—are harvested by machine. It takes long days, from about 6 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m., and many hands to get the job done. Fresh cherries are pick up by the truckload each night of July's harvest. They go first to local markets then to larger chains around the Great Lakes.

Credit: Photo: Justin Walker

Bardenhagen grows about seven cherry varieties including Royalton, Black Gold, and Regina. He loves the sweet-tart Balaton. "I always request a Balaton cherry pie for my birthday," he says. In addition to a heavy rotation of cherry pies, cobblers, and crisps, Bardenhagen also eats his cereal with dried cherries and drinks a glass of cherry juice every morning to stay healthy.

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Cherry Varieties

Sweet (left): Gumball-size, with a lacquered red to inky purple color. Extra-sweet fruit with a firm texture. Enjoy fresh, or try gently cooking or macerating to soften their skins.

Sour (middle): Marble-size, with a mustang-red color and a slight heart shape. Also called pie cherries, the fruit can be too tart to eat out of hand. Use in compotes or baked desserts.

Rainier (right): Medium-size, with a blushing gold color. Caramel-level sweetness with a delicate texture. This short-season cherry is worth the splurge and best eaten fresh.