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Sweet & Lucious: Michigan’s Fruit Belt

September 21, 2016

Sweet & Lucious: Michigan’s Fruit Belt

Special thanks to Maya Parson, who interviewed Chef Joho for this wonderful article on Michigan fruit in this season’s Edible Chicago.

Golden, sweet and as small as cherry tomatoes, the world’s most coveted plums arrive in the markets of France in late summer. The heady perfume of the mirabelle plum is especially prized for jam making and eau de vie. In Lorraine, the epicenter of mirabelle production, the fruit has Protected Geographical Indication status—recognition by the European Union of its traditional cultivation in the region—and is feted annually in the city of Metz with music, fireworks and the crowning of a Mirabelle Queen.

To get a taste of mirabelle plum, you could fly thousands of miles to France, where 80% of the world’s crop is grown. But if you live in Chicago, there’s no need to travel so far from home. Just a short day trip from the Loop you can find mirabelles, along with other varieties of heirloom plums, cherries, apples, pears, quince and more in Berrien County, Michigan, in the southwest corner of the state’s fruit belt.

Among the most diverse and productive agricultural regions in the world, the fruit belt hugs the eastern shore of Lake Michigan from the Indiana border to Grand Traverse Bay over 250 miles to the north. Its sandy fertile soils and unique microclimate moderated by the lake make it a perfect environment for berries, apples and stone fruits.

“What’s amazing about this place is that the fruit belt is really just a narrow band. Once you are 20 or so miles from the lake, the climate is just a little harsher and not quite as good for fruit,” says apple grower and organic farmer Tom Rosenfeld of Earth First Farms in Berrien Center, Michigan.

Thanks to the fruit belt, Michigan grows more blueberries and cherries than any other state and is one of the nation’s top producers of apples and grapes.

But the region’s fruit production isn’t just remarkable for its quantity. The quality of the fruit is also exceptional. It’s the reason that Chef J. Joho of Chicago’s acclaimed Everest restaurant has been buying fruit from Berrien County farmers for almost 30 years. That and the mirabelle plum.

Chef Joho grew up feasting on his father’s mirabelles in Alsace, France. But he never encountered them in the United States—until he discovered them on the Teichman farm about 10 years ago in the orchards at Round Barn Winery, Distillery and Brewery in Baroda.

Mirabelles are rarely grown outside of France, in part because of the protected EU status of the beloved mirabelle de Lorraine cultivar. They are not, however, illegal to grow outside of France, contrary to what has been reported on many Internet sites. At Round Barn, Chef Joho was delighted to find one of his favorite childhood fruits growing just down the road from his country home in Berrien County. The Moersch family has been cultivating grapes and other fruits in Southwest Michigan for more than three decades and grow mirabelles for wine and brandy. (The plums are not for sale to the public, but are available “by the bottle.”)

When he Chef Joho invited preserving and pickling expert Christine Ferber—widely regarded as the world’s greatest jam maker—to visit him from Alsace, she was also impressed by the local fruit. “Christine visited several times and really loves the local fruit,” Chef Joho recalls. “When she first came, she was surprised by the quality and flavor. She is very picky—which is why she makes the best jam in the world—but we found wonderful peaches and apricots in Berrien County. She made jars and jars and jars of jam.”

There are many things about Berrien County that remind Chef Joho of his home in Alsace: The plums and the cherries, the gentle hills, the climate, even the soil, he says, are similar. But what really makes Southwest Michigan feel like home, Chef Joho says, are the small farmers, like the Teichman family of Tree-Mendus Fruits in Eau Claire, where chef has been a customer for decades, or Jennifer and Mark Collins of Blue Star Produce in Buchanan who grow his favorite strawberries along with close to 100 other varieties of heirloom organic fruits and vegetables for their market stand and community supported agriculture subscription program.

When it comes to growing and selecting the most delicious fruit, the region’s farmers, he says, are the experts. “They know what’s best, what’s the best fruit you can have.”

Fruit has been grown commercially in Southwest Michigan since the early 19th century, when farmers in the Benton Harbor area began exporting peaches by boat to Chicago and other cities. Today, fruit from Berrien and Van Buren counties is readily available at Chicago-area farmers markets from farms like Seedling Farm (South Haven), Mick Klug Farm (St. Joseph), Big Head Farm (Benton Harbor), Joe’s Blues (Bangor) and many others.

It can also be found on menus at the city’s best restaurants, from pinnacles of fine dining like Everest to casual eateries like the Heartland Café, which was purchased by Tom and Denise Rosenfeld of Earth First Farms as a way to bring more local food to Chicago and help sustain their organic farm.

Fruit belt farms are also increasingly bringing their crops to customers via small-batch products like ciders and jams. The recently launched Fruit Belt Soda, based in Sawyer, Michigan, uses area fruit to make grown-up—less sweet, real fruit flavor—soft drinks like Sour Cherry Zing and Tart Apple Dream. Lehman’s Orchard in Niles, Michigan grows cider apples to supply their winery and cidery with heirloom varieties like Yarlington Mill, Nehou and Kingston Black. Farmer Steve Lecklider, the greatgrandson of Lehman’s founder George Lehman, says that the “authenticity of source material and production is what our customers really appreciate.”

Fruit lovers can experience that authenticity firsthand on a day trip (or overnight) to Southwest Michigan, which is less than two hours from downtown Chicago but feels much farther.

“Driving the back roads in Southwest Michigan is a feast for the senses,” says Earth First Farms’ Tom Rosenfeld. “Rolling hills lined with grape vines, fruit trees and the occasional dairy create a pastoral scene so close to Chicago.”

Many farms offer visitors the opportunity to pick their own fruit—from strawberries in early summer to apples in the fall. Farm markets also sell pre-picked fruit to stock freezers and fill canning jars.

“Southwest Michigan is a wonderful part of this country for fruit. It has a lot to offer,” Chef Joho says. “Why go somewhere else?”

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