Royal Kay Cherries
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Royal Kay cherries are a large varietal, averaging 2 to 3 centimeters in diameter, and have a round to slightly flattened, cordate shape. The cherries bear curved shoulders, slightly tapering to a rounded base, and the fruit’s skin is semi-thick, glossy, smooth, and taut, showcasing bright to dark red hues. Royal Kay cherries also produce a fibrous and elongated, narrow green stem that averages 3 to 4 centimeters in length. Underneath the surface, the flesh is aqueous, bright red, and low in fibers, creating a tender, crisp, and dense consistency. The fruits also contain a central ovoid pit that tightly clings to the flesh. Royal Kay cherries are sweet, averaging around 13 Brix, which is a measurement of sugar levels, and are balanced with low acidity to create a pleasing, sweet, tart, and tangy taste.
Royal Kay cherries are available for a few weeks in the late spring.
Royal Kay cherries, botanically classified as Prunus avium, are an early-season variety belonging to the Rosaceae family. The sweet cherry cultivar grows on large trees that can reach 4 to 5 meters in height and was developed as a variety that would meet the needs of the changing California commercial cherry market. Royal Kay cherries arrive in California markets at the beginning of May before bing cherries and are only available for a short season, lasting a few weeks. The variety was bred to be an early and productive producer of quality fruits with a desirable flavor and texture. Royal Kay cherries were also selected for their hardiness in commercial handling and shipping. The tender, juicy cherries are primarily cultivated for fresh eating, but their balanced flavor also makes them suitable for various sweet and savory, cooked preparations.
Royal Kay cherries are a source of vitamin C to strengthen the immune system, vitamin A to maintain healthy organ functioning, potassium to balance fluid levels within the body, and other amounts of iron, calcium, and magnesium. The cherries also contain anthocyanins, the red and purple pigments found within the skin and flesh that encompass antioxidant-like properties to reduce inflammation and protect the cells against free radical damage.
Royal Kay cherries have a balanced, sweet-tart flavor well suited for fresh eating. The cherries can be consumed straight, out of hand, discarding the pit and stem, or they can be sliced and tossed into green salads, fruit salads, salsa, or blended into smoothies and juices. Royal Kay cherries can also be incorporated into yogurt and acai bowls, halved and served on appetizer platters, or used as edible decorations on ice cream, waffles, pancakes, cakes, pies, and tarts. In addition to fresh preparations, Royal Kay cherries are frequently baked into scones, muffins, pies, cobblers, and bread, or the fruits are simmered into jams, jellies, compotes, syrups, and sauces. Beyond sweet preparations, Royal Kay cherries can be served with savory meat dishes. The fruits are frequently stuffed or rolled with spices into poultry, pork, or duck, or they can be infused into marinades, barbeque sauces, or chutney. The cherries can also be preserved in maraschino liqueur or brandy for cocktails and desserts. Royal Kay cherries pair well with vanilla bean, dark chocolate, maple syrup, honey, nuts such as pistachios, almonds, and pecans, meats including pork, beef, turkey, and poultry, kale, mint, fruits such as coconut, lime, plums, apricots, and peaches, and cheeses including mascarpone, feta, and ricotta cheese. Whole, unwashed Royal Kay cherries will keep up to one week when stored between paper towels in the coldest part of the refrigerator. The cherries can also be frozen for extended use.
Royal cherry varieties were created to meet the changing climate of the California cherry season. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, farmers noticed California was growing hotter, and the warmer weather in the spring was causing the cherry season to be low producing. Each cherry variety requires a specific number of chill hours, the number of hours of cool weather in the winter for the plant to go dormant and effectively bloom. In the spring, the blossoms also produce pistils that catch the pollen. Due to the warmer weather, many of the flower’s pistils were drying out too fast, unable to be pollinated, and the trees were not reaching their chill hour requirements. Breeders at Zaiger Genetics in Modesto studied these newfound cultivation issues and sought to develop early maturing cherry varieties with a lower chill requirement. There are several Royal cherry cultivars developed through Zaiger Genetics that have been released for commercial cultivation, including Ansel, Hazel, Tioga, Helen, Edie, Brynn, Tenaya, Elaine, and Lee. Many of these varieties are also being grown outside of California in warmer regions, including areas in France and Italy.
Royal Kay cherries were developed by Zaiger Genetics, a breeding company based in Modesto, California. The variety is believed to be an open-pollinated cross created from stella cherries and was grown on mahaleb rootstock in the company’s experimental orchard in 1992, labeled as tree 13HA431. Grant Zaiger, Gary Zaiger, and Leith Gardner, the breeders of Royal Kay cherries, spent several years studying and experimenting with the new cherries to create a variety with an early-season, productive yield, and quality flavor. In 2002, Zaiger Genetics filed for a plant patent, which was later granted in 2004. Today Royal Kay cherries are primarily grown through specialty farms and as a home garden cultivar. When in season, the cherries can be found through distributors, farmer’s markets, and select grocers in California and the Pacific Northwest.
Recipes that include Royal Kay Cherries. One is easiest, three is harder.
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