Restaurants & Bars

CJ Olson’s New Cherry Stand (Long)

Stanley Stephan | Jun 9, 200203:28 PM     3

…. But the last half is cherry info and history.

Debra Olson really did a nice job. The place still has that roadside cherry stand look and feel. The access is easier since there are no steps up to the stand.

There is nothing like an Olson Bing Cherry. The stand has cherries and fruit through much of the summer. Debra seeks out the top of the line growers. However, the REAL Olson cherries RULE. As of Saturday they were at their prime. Low yield for the Bings this year so don’t know how much longer they will be available.

Bite in. The perfect crunch. Juicy with a deep, rich sweet Bing taste.

Every thing is perfect about these cherries, the color, taste, crunch, and even the feel. In the back of the stand a crew picks through the cherries, sorting by size and quality. The best baskets hare a black burnished burgundy color with deep ruby tones. Plump and shiny with most stems still attached, they even feel right. The right firmness, not the rock hardness of an under ripe cherry or the flabby softness of an over ripe fruit.

Pop the cherry in your mouth, holding it with your teeth., pull the stem off. Otherwise the deep juice may lightly stain your fingers.

Long ago, before it had a name, before people lived here, Steven’s Creek flowed where the orchard sits. The ancient river bed left the perfect mix of loam and gravel, different from the adobe clay found in most of Sunnyvale. The warm Sunnyvale climate tempered by cool Bay breezes made for ideal growing conditions.

The stand sells a number of other cherry related items.

The Cherry pie is very nice. If it is made according to Debra’s published recipe, Olson’s crust is made mainly with a half butter / shortening mix. It is flaky and rich, but I don’t find the butter taste pronounced. The filling of deep, dark burgundy colored cherries is not overly sweet. You can buy slices of pie, so you might buy a slice to see if it is to your liking. Quite different from the pies sold at most bakeries and markets with the bright red gooey filling. For some reason, I am not wild about the other baked goods. The quality is very good, but they are just not to my taste.

In about two weeks the wonderful local Blenheim apricots will be available, followed by the local Santa Rosa plums. Both the best of their class. Large sugar-sweet fragrant apricots and the tart/sweet plums so juice you need to eat them near a sink. Be sure to ask if the apricots and plums are locally grown.

There is a huge variety of dried fruit. Dried Bing, Rainier, Royal Ann and tart cherries. Dried white peaches and nectarines. The catalogue says the slab dried apricots which are harvested extra-ripe are the customer’s favorites. Have not tried them though. The fresh fruit has always been so good, I haven’t sampled the dried fruit very much. I may do that at the end of this summer since the dried fruit currently on the stand is from last summer.

Lots of chocolate covered fruit with some samples. The pastel chocolate covered blueberries had an intense blueberry taste.

Opening day there was a huge fondue pot of chocolate with fresh Bings and dried apricots for sampling. The Bing cherries dipped into the barely warm chocolate was an “WOW” moment.. I’m not sure if this was the same chocolate sauce they sell. The slight warming may have really improved the taste. Outstanding combination.

I finally splurged on a tiny jar of Griottine cherries. Griottines are pitted wild Morello Cherries macerated in a light syrup with alcohol and Kirsch Brandy. A Google search turned up 411 hits, the majority in French. They were quite tasty but I could not get over the fact that the six blueberry-sized cherries cost me a buck a piece.

They sell a nice cherry pitter that easily holds and pit’s the cherry with a little cup to catch the seed. By this time I had gone insane and was buying everything in sight. The chance of me ever using any type of cherry pitter is below zero.

Debra’s cookbook, “Life is a bowl of Cherries” has some nice recipes and family history. It’s how I learned to brandy cherries.

There are jams, jellies and cherry honey. They are nice but I don’t go out of my way for them. There were beautiful jars canned Royal Ann, Black and Tart cherries by Red Hill Farm. Haven‘t tried these yet.

The rest of this is just about opening day, so in the unlikely event you got this far, there’s no more food news, only Olson history.

Charlie Olson, the grandson of the owner gave a tour of the orchard across the street. The orchard is owned by the city of Sunnyvale. But a big fat shiny medal should go to Sunnyvale for keeping it an orchard instead of turning it totally into tennis courts as originally planned. The condition is that the Olson’s maintain the trees.

The original orchard which was behind the stand was sold a few years ago because Charlie said they were losing money on it. The geniuses who built the plaza in back put in a bunch of chains (Starbucks, Borders, Chiplote, A.G. Ferrari and Pasta Pomodora). Given the imaginative stores, besides pavement, the mall is landscaped with palm trees. Not ONE cherry tree on land that was made for cherry trees.

Back to the orchard. As we stumbled through the clumps of loam, Charlie said that there were eight kinds of trees in this orchard. There are pollinator trees, like the Van cherry trees. This year the pollinator trees bloomed early and set before the Bings bloomed. This left very frustrated Bing trees and a very low yield.

Charlie let us sample cherries straight from the trees. Heaven. When you pick a cherry you need to pick it with the stem. Underneath the stem is a spur which is the beginning of next year’s fruit. If you leave the stem on the tree, no cherry next year.

It seems hot weather can ruin cherries just as much as rain. Three days of extreme heat will leave the cherries soft.

It takes seven years for a tree to produce fruit. I was stumbling around in the loam, so I didn’t hear how long a tree produces. When a tree gets too old, it’s bark starts breaking down. One tree being discussed was planted in the 1950’s. Trees are fertilized in October since it takes 3 - 4 months for the nitrogen in the fertilizer to take effect. Charlie stressed the importance of fertilizing cherry trees to the gardeners in the group. Trees are sprayed once in January before leaves, fruit or flowers appear.

Other than the once a year spraying and fertilizing, the Olson’s try to live with nature and civilization. A tree or two is sacrificed to the birds which, like us, wait until the cherries are ripe to chow down. Black aphids are chewing up the few trees across the street. Charlie is hoping they don’t march across Sunnyvale-Saratoga street and mount an attack.

California state law limits the height of fruit trees to 14 feet for worker safety.

When someone asked why cherries at the market don’t taste as good, Charlie said that farmers try to rush to market as soon as possible because so many things can go wrong such as a few days of bad climate or crops from other states showing up early and driving prices down. One year, the Northwest Cherry crop showed up early and, as a result, to unload the local crop, stores in SF’s Chinatown were selling cherries at 49 cents a pound. A money losing proposition. So growers rush to pick the crop which may not be totally ripe.

In the late 1800’s Lyon’s (sp) dairy occupied this area. Charlie’s grandfather, C.J. (Carl Johan) immigrated from Sweden to Minnesota. An ad in the paper for a free train trip, free barbeque and a deal on land brought CJ west. Sort of like those free trip deals offered today to buy timeshares. Only the Olsen’s had a much better deal. Charlie’s mother seemed to be the driving force in the business. Selling cherries for ten cents a pound by the roadside, she put the money into buying land. She told her children not to put money in the bank because it just gets taxed. Buy real estate.

The history of the family is well documented in Debra’s cookbook.

After the tour, there was the official ribbon cutting with the family and the Mayor of Sunnyvale. A few tables were set up. Cherry lemonade was sold for 25 cents and fresh chocolate dipped cherries were complementary. I left as a little band merrily played “Hot, hot, hot“…

I worked many years in this area. It was a beautiful sunny day and for old time’s sake I drove up Sunnyvale-Saratoga road as far as Saratoga High were a farmer’s market was winding up. The many orchards that lined this road are all gone, replaced by malls. The fruit stands on this road advertising cherries and apricots are all memories except for Olson’s. I drove back to SF on 280 enjoying the golden hills and munching on my bag of Olson’s cherries. Alternately I hummed “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries“ and Joanie Mitchell’s tune…..”You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”.

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