Spring’s vibrant pink buds produce succulent bites of summer heaven from Hood River
written by Julie Lee | photography by Daniel Stark
There is something that screams spring when pink buds burst in the sky on cherry trees: bold pink in color, breathtaking against a blue sky, announcing winter’s end. That was especially true this year after Oregon’s seemingly never-ending deluge. It’s a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” window in May, when cherry blossom loyalists will walk, hike and bike around Oregon to breathe in the beauty and abundance of cherry blossoms. There is even a Cherry Blossom Park in Portland, dedicated to nature’s wizardry.
Sweet cherries originated in the region between the Black and Caspian Seas and derive their name from the Turkish town of Cerasus. Colonists brought cherries with them in the 1600s, and in 1847, a settler traveling from Iowa to Oregon brought nursery stock, which became the first cherry trees planted in the Northwest.
Cherries, considered a bite-sized superfood, are packed with potassium, copper and vitamin C and tout numerous health benefits. Two handfuls of cherries deliver the same benefits as a banana to balance electrolytes and eliminate post-run cramps, and a cup of cherries outweighs the copper benefits of Chinook salmon. One of the hidden benefits is getting better rest; cherries contain melatonin, and a glass of tart cherry juice before bed has been proven in studies to help regulate sleep.
That post-Thanksgiving dinner feeling you have after gobbling turkey? Cherries produce the same relaxing effect with their mix of tryptophan and serotonin that helps balance mood and brain function. A bonus? Sweet as cherries are, they also contain half the sugar of an apple or orange.
At Hood River Cherry Company, the dividend of spring’s cherry blossom season comes mid-summer.
Affectionately and appropriately called “Mother Nature’s magic on a stem” by founder and orchardist Katy Klein and her family, cherries are in high season in July and August, and the Hood River Cherry Company has a corner on the market.
Hood River Cherry Company cherries are grown at a high elevation at the base of Mount Hood and have a darker, sweeter flavor and longer harvest season than other cherries you’ll find. Vine-ripened and hand-picked, Hood River Cherry Company cherries are heralded around the country as unique.
Klein and Brad Fowler planted their first cherry tree in 1993, fittingly on the day their youngest son was born. The inspiration to get into the cherry business stemmed from their own search for cherries that weren’t underripe or bland. Both raised in Hood River, orcharding was already in their blood, and Klein’s father had a small orchard where she tasted her first hand-picked cherry. Recognizing that the high elevation in Hood River was ideal for cherry growing, they dove into the business.
It’s a family business through and through; all four of their children planted trees at a young age and weren’t afraid of the long days of farming. “Brad and I started the business from scratch,” said Klein. “Every child is involved, and some have orchards of their own.”
Tony Guisto is part of that second generation on the farm. “We have a vision to grow the business without losing vision of what we do best, which is producing a high-quality cherry,” said Guisto.
“We don’t want to get too big. Right now, it’s a niche market,” said Klein. “Everything is hand-sorted. All our cherries are picked tree ripened. We don’t do it like the big guys.”
Guisto said the pandemic helped consumption. “People wanted to eat healthier,” he said. Their only issue was labor, with 90 percent of their cherries being hand sorted, they had to make modifications in the packing line.
Online sales are resuming this year for the first time since 2020, after being stalled with some shipping challenges. They ship overnight and love sending their cherries all over the country to loyal Hood River Cherry Company enthusiasts. “We have almost a cult following,” said Klein. “It has to do with the tree ripening, the clusters.”
Hood River Cherry Company had immediate support in the Northwest and along the West Coast, and now has a global following. “When we started, we didn’t have a foot in the door,” Guisto said. He was 5 years old when the orchard was first planted and went into production when he was 14. “I’m proud of my mom,” he said. “In the food industry, it’s a ‘man’s world’. People knew what they were going to get when they did business with her. She is old school. Being a middle schooler and seeing my mom travel the country to sell cherries? Respect.”
“People would tell me no, then I would ship them cherries overnight,” said Klein. “I thought to myself, ‘We’ll see how they feel when they try these!” The rest, as they say, is sweet history.
For an afternoon treat, Klein’s favorite summer sip is Hood River Cherry Company’s Sweet Cherry Sangria—simple to assemble, and the flavors meld beautifully together overnight.
Six-time James Beard award finalist Cathy Whims of Nostrana in Portland offers one of her favorite summertime desserts, Cherry Semifreddo. “This gorgeous dessert is a simple and elegant way to showcase Oregon cherries,” she said. “Semifreddo is an Italian dessert that means ‘half frozen’ and is similar to ice cream but requires no churning or special equipment. This recipe makes two loaves—one for now, one for later. Believe me, you’ll be grateful you made more than one. This is a perfect make-ahead recipe that can be stored for up to a week and brought out to impress guests at your next dinner party. A drizzle of aged balsamic adds visual drama and contributes a zesty element of surprise to the sweet and creamy elements of the dish.”
And Ben Stenn, owner and chef of Celilo Restaurant and Bar in Hood River, shares his recipe for Cherry Olive Oil Cake, with cherry sauce and cherry ice cream, a delicious way to indulge in summer’s sweet cherries.