There was a time, before our memory, when Nova Scotia's North Mountain could equal or surpass, in beauty, the legendary cherry blossoms of Japan, Washington, or anywhere else in the world.
Picture it, and imagine the aroma, as each spring thousands of wild cherry trees burst into bloom all over the mountain. And few living creatures, other than the birds and wild animals, knew about it.
This story was hidden away for years in records kept at Fort Edward, in Windsor, and, having been uncovered there, resurfaced in a letter written by Judge E.J. Cogswell of Kentville to the editor of the Evening Mail, in October, 1897. I found a copy of that letter in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, in a scrapbook kept by E.F. Hart sometime around 1900. I found it so fascinating that I determined to do an article on cherries just so I can pass the story along to you.
According to tradition, a terrible cyclone struck the province in 1709. Starting in the western end of Annapolis County, the ferocious wind tore furiously through North Mountain, flattening all the trees in its wake, and finally abated somewhere in eastern Hants or Halifax County.
This immense mass of fallen timber just lay there, drying out for a full year until it became tinder for the second tragedy, referred to by Cogswell as the great fire of 1710.
"The heat was so intense that it not only consumed the fallen timber, but it also burnt up the very seeds of trees that were in the ground and the new forest was very slow to start," he wrote.
That's when the birds took over. Apparently, some wild cherry trees that grew by the brooks were spared by the fire. With little to eat, the birds descended on the cherries, and scattered the cherry stones as they flew. The stones germinated, the trees grew, and the blossoms bloomed.
"Even now , when the forest is cut down, the wild cherry trees will spring up in surprising numbers," Cogswell wrote. Eventually, the hardwood trees grew, reaching above the cherry trees and shutting out the sunlight so they couldn't survive.
The letter ended with this observation: "The forest primeval of Longfellow's poem went down in the great cyclone but the murmuring pines and the hemlocks of the new growth existed at Grand Pré at the time of Evangeline."
Today there are cultivated cherry orchards in the Annapolis Valley and beyond. While sweet Bing cherries are sold fresh at the fruit stands where they're grown, it's the sour cherries, the Montmorency and Galaxy, that are more often used in cooking. You can buy them fresh, or frozen in five- or 10-pound buckets with a small amount (10 per cent) of sugar added.
When you drive to the Valley to buy local cherries, you'll recognize the cherry trees as those adorned with reflector tape or colourful streamers. The birds have never lost their taste for this delicious fruit, and growers are constantly looking for humane ways to scare their feathered adversaries away.
We used frozen cherries when testing and developing the following recipes. Don't scoff at cherry sandwiches (They're best made ahead, wrapped and refrigerated for a few hours). Don't miss the cherry pizza (It's an old-new approach to a tasty dessert). Don't limit the maple cherry sauce (It's just as good on poultry or ham). And certainly, you can bake a cherry pie, but be sure to save some cherries for jam.