On Wednesday at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, I got a hot tip from Akasha, who had heard it from David Karp, aka the Fruit Detective. The rumor was that there would be a few sour cherries at the Sunday Hollywood Market. "You better get there at 7:30," warned Akasha. That's half an hour before the market officially opens, so this morning I woke up at 6:30, and I had just parked in Hollywood when Akasha and Alan pulled up.
"We must be crazy," she said, and Alan nodded in agreement. "By the way, Alan, happy father's day."
He rolled his eyes.
The three of us wandered into the otherwise empty market, where you could have fired a cannonball down Ivar without hitting a shopper. The farmers were still unpacking. Akasha and I were moving fast, scanning the stalls as we went. We flew by farmer James Birch without breaking pace. We were in a mad dash.
The reason for our cherry madness was the complete failure of the sour cherry crop at Cherry Tyme in the Leona Valley. Cherry Tyme is the only sour cherry orchard in California, and Akasha and I have picked there for the past two years. This year, however, the crop was hurt by a late frost and then totally destroyed by an invading army of ground squirrels. The couple who run the place emailed to say there's nothing left to pick. Their discouragement was so deep that they may never reopen. The news was, as they say in California, a total bummer.
Which is why David Karp's tip got Akasha and me out of bed at a ridiculous hour for a Sunday.
At last we found the secret cherry vendor occupying the literal last stall at the market. She had barely started to unpack.
"Do you have sour cherries," asked Akasha, breathless.
"Not many," said the farmer.
"We'll take whatever you've got," I said.
Her supply was pitifully modest, only 2 pounds of what were probably Montmorency. Akasha and I agreed to split them.
"It's better than nothing," she said.
But the big surprise was yet to come. A few minutes later in another part of the market we ran into David Karp, who didn't care that we'd gotten the last sour cherries because he'd ferreted out something even rarer from the same vendor. David gave one to Akasha--a medium-sized, medium-red, heart-shaped cherry--then hesitated as if unsure that I was worthy to taste one. I had a millisecond to plead my case.
"Is it a Duke?," I blurted out. David looked astonished. I'd guessed the secret password, and he gave me one.
"Are there any more?," I asked.
"There's only one pound left," he said. "Hurry."
But I was already running back to the cherry vendor to buy the last of her Dukes. Before that moment, I didn't really believe that Dukes existed, because one hardly ever even reads about them, and then only as an aside in a footnote buried deep in some specialized treatise on cherries. Apparently the fruit is an antique French variety that may be a cross between a sweet cherry and a sour cherry. It originated in the Médoc, although English fans of the fruit chewed over the name of its homeland until all that was left was May Duke—Duke for short. The French name, Royale, suggests its favored status among all cherries, and Thomas Jefferson, an orchard connoisseur, planted it at Monticello.
Today I'm here to affirm that the cherry is delicious, whatever you call it. The Duke, situated at 12 o'clock in the picture ABOVE, resembles both types of cherry species to a degree but neither one exactly. The flavor is full, like a sweet cherry, but the flesh is paler than the skin and highly acidic, like a sour cherry. I think it's going to make a spectacular jam.
Read about Dukes and the rest of the refined cherry clan in my upcoming book, Saving the Season: a Handbook for Home Canning, Pickling and Preserving. I'm copyediting the manuscript now, and it will be published by Knopf next spring.