“I’m a fruit snob,” admits Tom McCamant, who with his wife Lynn owns Forbidden Fruit Orchard in Paradise. “I got into this business because I couldn’t find a good piece of fruit.” Tom can’t make that complaint anymore. His peaches—the only peaches commercially grown in Montana—rule the Farmer’s Market in late summer, ready to burst into juice at the slightest provocation. So, too, do Forbidden Fruit’s cherries live up to their claim of “Sinfully Delicious.” With 2,100 trees planted, the McCamants still aren’t earning enough to quit their day jobs, but maybe that’s not the point. “I really like bringing fruit to market, interacting with the community,” says Tom. “I feel like I’m giving something back to the universe.”
“My husband is a crazy entrepreneur,” says Lynn. “This is our retirement plan.” In their Missoula kitchen, Tom shows me how to use his refractometer, a device for measuring the soluble solids—mostly sugars—in fruit. He bites a cherry in half and squeezes a few drops into the gizmo. “A lot of people could grow better fruit if they had one of these,” he says. Every fruit has a signature sugar content at its optimal harvest time, he explains, and if growers monitored their fruit’s sugar level, they could time their harvest for peak flavor. “We like our Bing Cherries to be around 25 percent,” says Tom. Each of their other cherry varieties, including Lambert, Sandra Rose, Regina, Rainier, Van, Skeena, Sonata, Attika, Early Robin, Black Gold and Sweetheart, has its own target sugar content.
He also mentioned a cherry called Lapin, which I mistook for Lapping. I got quite a surprise while fact-checking this story when I did a Google search on “Lapping Cherries.” Whoa. Talk about forbidden fruit.
Anyway, with cherry season upon us, Tom has two pieces of advice on how to obtain and preserve the best cherries.
Stores often put their old cherries on top of the display, he says, hoping to sell them while they still can. But the difference between old and new cherries is as least as great as the difference between Lapin and Lapping. If you make a fuss, he claims, the produce person will pull out a box of the good stuff and let you select from it.
His other nugget of wisdom is about canning your cherries (or any other fruit) in syrup. Like many things in Tom’s world, this brings us back to his refractometer. Assuming your fruit was harvested at the proper time, with the proper sugar content, then you want to use a syrup of equal sugar content. Too much sugar in the syrup makes the cherries too sweet. Not enough sugar, and the imbalance pulls sugar out of the cherries and into the syrup. A syrup of equivalent sugar content will preserve the true flavor of the fruit.
Jam, on the other hand, requires a lot of sugar. In addition to acting as a preservative, sugar helps make the jam thick by interacting with pectin—another jam essential. Pectin comes from the cell walls of certain fruits, like apples, plums and oranges. Available wherever canning jars are sold, pectin powder usually comes with instructions on how to make jam and jelly from just about any fruit. While these recipes call for a lot of sugar, the product will resemble what you had in mind when you decided to make jam. Substituting honey for sugar is risky—some people do it, but it’s never worked for me.
I’ve just learned about a brand of pectin called Pomona, which gels by interaction with calcium rather than sugar. I learned about Pomoma so close to press time that I didn’t have time to experiment, but I hear good things about it. It’s available at the Good Food Store, and it, too, comes with recipes.
One way around the super-sweet jam problem is to use pie cherries for your jam. Pie cherries are tart enough to neutralize the sweetness of all that sugar, and your jam will still thicken. Highly recommended.
Jam is a fickle product, and rather than provide you with a recipe of my own, the most responsible thing I can tell you is to follow the recipes provided with your pectin. But I will offer a few tidbits of advice that they don’t mention in the pectin recipes.
Jamming is messy business. Dress in red, black, or nothing at all.
Use a cherry pitter to remove the pits. No matter what the recipe says, leave about half of the cherries whole. It will make the texture of the final product much more satisfying. Many recipes call for lemon juice. Fresh lemon juice beats the pants off the bottled stuff. And you can—and should—add the lemon zest. A great way to serve fresh jam is in little cups with a lot of heavy cream. Happy lapping!
Find Forbidden Fruit at the new Clark Fork River Farmers Market on Saturday morning, under the Higgins Ave. bridge.