One for the basket, one for me. One for the basket, one for me. Picking cherries doesn't require a huge amount of skill. You pinch the stalk at the base, and then pull back against the branch, relieving it of cherry and stalk in a clean break. Place in basket. Crucially, after every fourth pick or so (or every other pick if you're me) the unwritten law of the cherry harvest requires that you pop one in your mouth. Because, as I'm discovering at an orchard in Kent, there are few greater pleasures than eating ripe-to-bursting cherries straight from the tree.
I've come to Allens Farm near Sevenoaks, a bosky oasis of orchards gently sloping towards the river Bourne, barely half an hour from London Bridge station. Natural springs gently irrigate the south-facing ground, where a warm, sunny, early summer has been a boon for the 100-year-old cherry trees. By now, they are groaning under the weight of fruit so richly coloured it has the deep maroon lustre of a lovingly polished antique Bentley.
Joining me for a morning of picking (and rampant scrumping) is the farmer's son, Barney Webb, and one of his most enthusiastic customers, the chef Jeremy Lee, who runs London's Blueprint Café. Both men are wild about cherries. "I look forward to the cherry season with great pleasure and enormous impatience," says Lee between pip spits. "When they're good, British cherries are just a lovely fruit. You get this extraordinary skin with all its complexities, which then explodes to reveal this almost wine cup of juice inside. It's a wonderful thing."
Such is the excitement that greets the cherry season that supermarkets race to load their shelves with often very expensive fruit. Sometimes impatience appears to colour reason; earlier this year Harrods was importing specially grown Glamour cherries from Spain, where an enterprising farmer had figured out a way to bring his trees to fruit as early as April. They were on sale for £3 a pop – or an astonishing £195 per kilo – yet they sold out in hours.
"It does seem ridiculous to eat cherries so far out of season," says Henrietta Green, a food writer, blogger and campaigner, who affirms the cherry season is her favourite. "Why not wait for the gloriously elusive British cherry to arrive?" Green is so enamoured with the British cherry that every year she hosts National Cherry Day (held earlier this month on 18 July), a festival at London's Borough Market designed to celebrate her favourite fruit. Under the CherryAid banner, she also campaigns for the British cherry. According to Green, who runs FoodLoversBritain.com, 95 per cent of the cherries sold in this country come from other countries, such as Turkey and Spain. Where British orchards used to bear tonnes of fruit, the cherry crop has shrivelled so much it's threatening to drop off the tree altogether.
Not that you would know it back at Allens Farm, where a rumbling tummy is an early warning sign that one picker at least might have over-indulged. But it's clear the cherry is a tricky proposition for a farmer. Webb and his family still use centuries-old methods. The trees tower above nettles and grass, which sheep are allowed to graze every so often. The family used to use traditional wooden ladders, but Brussels-born health-and-safety directives have consigned the last one to the farmhouse wall: a museum piece. The Webbs must now use cumbersome hydraulic lifts, or cherry pickers, to navigate the tangle of twigs and fruit in the trees' upper branches.
While commercial farms grow stunted trees in serried ranks under acres of netting, the Webbs' randomly placed, 30ft-tall trees are exposed to the cherry farmer's nemesis – the starling. "I remember my great-aunty Gwen used to have a big rope that ran up the path and then through eight or nine trees," recalls Webb. "When she tugged it, it was attached to weights in each tree that would crash against metal sheets, scaring the birds away."
Gwen's contraption is no more and the Webbs don't use pesticides to guard against other sweet-toothed raiders. Inevitably, they lose a lot of fruit and the yield-per-acre is too low for these trees to grow a profit. It's only the pleasure of the cherries and the orchard, where the family gathers for bonfires and summer picnics, that ensure the trees keep fruiting. And this year, there are more cherries than even the most committed flock of starlings could stomach.
Picking over, Lee and I say goodbye to Webb before catching the train back to London with our laden punnets, which draw envious glances from fellow passengers. In the kitchens of Lee's restaurant, which command a stunning view of the Thames from the top floor of the Design Museum in south-east London, we are hungry again, despite the morning's binge. But first we must prepare a dish, which thankfully doesn't take long because Lee has in mind a simple salad. As I help Anna Tobias, Lee's delightful pastry chef, stone the cherries, Lee shares his thoughts on how best to prepare these delicate fruits.
"The key is not to do too much," he says. "It's all too easy to ruin cherries. There's a cold cherry soup – but why would you? I love our cherry and almond tart passionately – the juice of the cherries bleeds through the tart beautifully. They also go very well in a salad with duck, pigeon or squab. Cold game is another good pairing.
The cherries ready, Lee slices up a duck breast he roasted earlier and adds it to sliced, pickled beetroot, cherries and leaves. As Jeremy tosses it all in vinaigrette, the juices from the cherries and beetroot mingle and bleed through the salad to stain everything a seductive red. Fork poised in the airy dining-room, I watch Lee empty his mixing bowl into a great white dish. It's a glorious combination and a testament to Webbs' fiendishly sweet cherries that they hold their own.
Next up, Tobias serves slices of a cherry and almond tart she has prepared with an earlier batch, topped with a dollop of Jersey cream. It's a triumph matched by our third course of the day – a simple bowl of cherries served with impossibly fresh-tasting ricotta drizzled with honey. It's cherry heaven, but there is no doubt even in Lee's mind which were the best cherries of the day.
"Ultimately, they're at their most delicious eaten as they are in the orchard," he says. "If I could, I would just take a tree to a table, shake it, and then put it back in the ground."
Cherries with ricotta and almond biscuit
A great heap of gorgeous cherries
A bowl of excellent ricotta (ours is from La Fromagerie, so very good)
A jar of light floral honey
A 200g piece of puff pastry
50g of whole blanched almonds, coarsely chopped
25g icing sugar
25g caster sugar
Heat the oven to 180C. Roll the pastry very thin using the sugars instead of flour, feeling free to use more if required. Press the almonds into the pastry and sift a little more sugar on to it. Bake in the oven until golden brown, for about half an hour, reducing the heat to 150C should the colour get dark too quickly.
Remove from the oven and, while still hot, use a sharp knife to cut rough squares in the cooked pastry.
Put the cherries in a bowl. Heap the ricotta in another and pour the honey over it.
Heap the biscuits on a plate and take all to the table.
A warm salad of duck and cherry
A beautiful duck of fine pedigree
Two handfuls of little beetroots
A great bowl of plump cherries
Sea salt and pepper
A handful or two of very good watercress
Some beautiful mesclun (not the terrible stuff in a bag)
Several tablespoons of Forum Cabernet Sauvignon red-wine vinegar
A stick of fresh horseradish
A spoonful or two of Maille Dijon mustard
Extra-virgin olive oil
Roast the duck until nicely pinked, having first buttered liberally, and salted and peppered well. Pop in the little beetroots on a wee bed of salt. Once cooked until softened, remove, cool and peel.
Dissolve two spoonfuls of vinegar with salt, pepper and sugar. Add in the mustard, then add in some olive oil.
Cut the beetroots into random shapes and toss in the dressing.
Remove the meat from the birds and then slice thinly. Stone the cherries.
Pick and wash the watercress. Pick through the mesclun.
Put all in a great big dish and toss together lightly into a gorgeous heap to be eaten toute de suite.Reuse content