Mid-Columbia, Yakima Valley taste sweet success with cherries

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 16, 2012 

— The aroma of amaretto mixed with a heady dark chocolate scent as the copper kettle rotated at 24 rpm.

The motion of the cherries rolling against each other and the kettle eventually molded the chocolate into delicious round treats such as Amaretto Rainiers, which Prosser’s Chukar Cherries is known for.

The chocolate cherries are among the products founder and co-owner Pam Montgomery has created to showcase Washington cherries since she started the company in 1988.

“You can really eat one and just savor it,” she said. “I’m proud to say they are not addictive.”

Chukar Cherries uses cherries grown from local orchards to make dried fruit and decadent chocolates. In 2012, the company worked with five to six different growers for the cherries needed for the next year — Bing, Rainier and Montmorency, a tart cherry, said JT Montgomery, co-owner.

Chukar Cherries is one of the companies in the state that processes cherries. In one year, it processes about 250,000 pounds of cherries, said Tommy Montgomery, Chukar Cherries’ vice president of sales and marketing.

Cherry growers picked a record-breaking crop in 2012. About 23.1 million 20-pound boxes of cherries were packed and shipped last season, said James Michael, promotion director for the Washington State Fruit Commission in Yakima.

The 2012 count exceeds 2009’s record of 20.4 million boxes, despite the rain that challenged growers and packers this season, Michael said.

Washington is the nation’s top grower of sweet cherries and grows about 80 percent of the sweet cherries in the Northwest, which includes Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah, Michael said.

The Washington cherry crop directly contributes $600 million to $700 million annually to the economy, Michael said. That does not measure all of the impacts, such as how SeaTac’s cargo flights double when cherries are in season.

The Northwest is the largest producer of fresh sweet cherries in the world, he said. While Turkey actually grows the most, those sweet cherries mostly are processed.

Each year, some of the sweet cherries grown locally head to Chukar Cherries.

Cherries enter Chukar Cherries’ plant with a dunk in a water bath. They are destemmed before going through a sizer.

A medium-size cherry is the ideal, JT Montgomery said.

The cherries flow into another water bath before they enter the pitter, a machine wielding 84 needles that punch a single needle into a cherry’s core, removing the pit and leaving the cherry’s shape relatively unmarred.

The pitless cherries are then arranged on a 3-by-3-foot metal tray to go into the dryer. Each dryer has six racks that rotate like a carousel. Each rack holds 20 trays.

Together, the two mammoth machines can dry 10,000 pounds of cherries in one go, JT Montgomery said. Time and temperature depend on the cherry variety.

For the six to eight weeks of cherry harvest, the cherry processing portion of the plant is busy, as workers prepare the fresh cherries for Chukar Cherries’ products.

After cherries are dried, they are poured into a plastic bag and placed in cold storage until they are needed for Chukar Cherries’ fruit and nut mixes or chocolate delicacies, JT Montgomery said.

When needed, they are taken to the chocolate room, where workers pour melted chocolate over the dried cherries as six copper kettles rotate and cool air blows to help the chocolate set, he said.

They watch for cherries that try to double by joining into one piece instead of two, and separate them.

The same process is used whether the center is a dried cherry or a pecan, he said. Any extra chocolate is scraped out and remelted to be used for the same product, JT Montgomery said.

One batch takes about eight hours, he said. From August through the Christmas season, they run two shifts to keep up with demand.

Chukar Cherries has about 50 employees year-round, and around Christmas gets up to about 100 employees. JT Montgomery said they have many of the same seasonal employees return each year.

A combination scale is used to weigh the finished candy, getting the pouches filled within 2 grams of accuracy, JT Montgomery said.

Then, workers zip closed the pouch’s zipper and run it through the sealer, before the finished candy heads to the company’s finished product warehouse.

Once there, they don’t stay long.

JT Montgomery said they make enough of their products for the demand. That way, when someone orders the popular Cabernet Cherries — which have a tart cherry center, dark chocolate and natural wine flavor — the ones they receive likely will have been made within the past few weeks.

Chukar Cherries is a mail-order food gift company, although it does sell to some wholesale customers and has stores in Prosser, Seattle’s Pike Place Market and Leavenworth.

From the warehouse, Chukar Cherries products are packed and prepared for shipping to fill customer orders.

While orders come in year-round, Christmas is the high season.

During the warmer months, anything chocolate is shipped with an icepack and a sticker warning people that the package contains chocolate, which could melt, he said.

During the years, Chukar Cherries has added products, to the point where there are now more than 50 products, not including combinations of them. Beyond about 25 chocolates, there are caramel corn, dried fruit, dried fruit and nut mixes, sweet and savory sauces and preserves and pie fillings, Pam Montgomery said.

Some have had their start in the Montgomerys’ kitchen, including the Chipotle Cherries, made with Rainiers and dark chocolate. After the taste of the chocolate and cherries explode, it’s followed by a light pepper heat.

While the chocolate products may cause taste buds of many to long for just a bite, Pam Montgomery said they actually sell about as much of their dried fruit and nut products as they do the chocolate.

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