Food & Drink: Bing's big hit days are over: Joanna Blythman predicts that the cherry will follow the apple into a brave new world of diversity and flavour

CERTAIN visions of fresh food make me wish I was an artist; and if I were, I would be rushing to my palette right now to capture the cherry collection that sits upon the kitchen table.

I have laid the fruit out in an assortment of old cane shopping baskets and panniers and it is hard not just to sit looking at it. There are seven different varieties, ranging from translucent scarlet through to inky black. The difference in flavour and texture is astonishing.

Here in Alsace, one of France's most prolific cherry-producing regions, it is the peak of the season. The markets are laden with cherries of all sorts, and the price tumbles daily. Even the corner shop is offering three types to choose from. But I made a special trip to buy mine from Rene and Beatrice Loew, whose orchards nestle in the foothills of the Vosges mountains at Westhoffen - a village famed far and wide for the magnificence of its cherries.

The Loews' orchards consist of a jumble of several hundred prolific trees, growing some 15 varieties, each heavy with its crop of fruit. The experience of finding yourself surrounded by cherries of stunning diversity and affordable price is doubly sweet if you are British. Come June at home, I would be wincing at the price of the imported American, French, Italian and Greek cherries. As for variety: a generic rubric 'cherries' - perhaps a choice between darker ones or redder ones - and that would be my lot.

There are, in theory, more than 200 varieties. Some are old, others new, but the differences are as distinct as among apples. Where once apples were just red or green, we look now for Sturmer Pippins, Russets, Cox's Orange and Braeburn. The same revolution in our perception of the cherry is long overdue.

A couple of varieties of American origin dominate imports to Britain: the Burlat and the Washington. It would be unfair to say that these are the Golden Delicious of cherrydom, because that amounts to an insult. Burlats and Washingtons, dark, sweet and fleshy, come from one of the two main cherry families - Prunus evium, the sweet dessert cherry sold under the varietal name Bing in the United States. But they are not the only fruit of this genetic tree. Their success lies in appearance and yield. From the retailer's standpoint, the fruit is big, glossy, attractive to the eye. From the grower's, it is prolific and easy to harvest, making it more profitable.

Growers who, like the Loews, are interested in retaining diversity do not disapprove of such varieties and, indeed, grow them. But they insist that they are in no way superior to other varieties within the same family that grow abundantly in their orchards. These include the Moreau, the Royale, the Marmotte, the Van, the Reverchon, the Sauvigny, the Hardy Giant, the Bockscheller and the Napoleon: all sweet varieties, but subtly different in flavour and degrees of firmness.

To those you must add the cherries we know in Britain as 'geans' or the French 'guignes', which are essentially wild cherries, sometimes red or black but always sweet. Within this group are many varieties, too, such as Kentish Red or Coeur de Pigeon.

An equally important part of the Loews' production is given over to the fruits that come from the sour cherry family, Prunus cerasum. These are the American 'pie' cherry, the German 'sauerkirschen', or what the British call morello, the French 'griotte'. Often incorrectly described as suitable only for jam or cooking, these are the type of cherry we almost never see in Britain. But pick your way around the sour cherry trees chez Loew as I did, and you would find that many are absolutely magnificent for eating just as they come.

These sour cherries are all distinguished by a translucent, almost see-through appearance, a softer texture, and a stone that comes away more cleanly. People with a sweet tooth might find them too sharp, but for me the flavours were stunning, and ultimately much more complex and interesting than the sweet cherries.

Rene Loew's favourite is an old variety called Reine Hortense, but it is susceptible to wind damage and therefore, more often than not, ends up in eaux-de-vie (fruit brandies). More reliable is the famous Montmorency, often suggested as a partner to savoury dishes such as duck or game. Both of these are bright red.

The darker griotte Anglaise gives an aromatic variation on the same characteristic flavour - something that is hard to describe. Once tasted, you cannot forget it. It is a sort of spicy tartness, not unlike a damson, where the flavour seems to lie in the skin.

Some of the wild cherry trees in the Loews' orchards are up to 120 years old and still producing, but most were planted in 1967. They are far from being a prize collection of rare varieties, since most cherry growers in France still produce a reasonable number of varieties for French consumption.

The Germans are the largest producers of cherries in the EC and they prefer the sour varieties. But they tend to bottle or preserve them. The more commercial French fruit co-operatives in areas such as the Rhone valley, which are geared to exports to countries such as Britain, have concentrated their efforts in orchard after orchard of Burlat.

Much of this is dictated by the specifications set by our supermarket chains, which are looking for a sweet, meaty cherry with a long shelf-life. But there are signs that the cherry monolith is beginning to be broken down - English cherry production appears to be on the up.

'English cherry orchards declined dramatically in the Seventies and Eighties but it looks as if more growers in Kent are getting serious about reviving them,' says Nigel Garbutt, Safeway's senior technical controller.

He hopes this year to be selling varieties such as the scarlet and cream Rainier or Merton Glory and perhaps some black Napoleon or Bradbourne in the slightly later English season which continues until September. But volumes will be small and weather is a nail-biting factor.

Unreliable weather seems to have put paid to US cherries this year; according to Vivien Jawett of Marks & Spencer, the American crop has just failed.

'This week we are selling Reverchons, next week we think it will be Vans, and then most likely Bing - all from France,' she says.

It looks as though cherries may be next in line for more 'varietal marketing' in an exercise similar to that which has happened with 'old' varieties of apple. But whether they are English or any other nationality, old varieties or new varieties, it seems that the emphasis will be on the sweet Prunus avium family we are already familiar with.

This is a shame, if not a tragedy. If you can fly a green bean from Kenya, you can import a juicy Montmorency or aromatic griotte from France. There is no good reason why we should not delight in the range that other European consumers take for granted.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Voices
voicesBryony Beynon: This is something every woman can relate to
Arts and Entertainment
film

News
Mock the tweet: Ukip leader Nigel Farage and comedian Frankie Boyle
peopleIt was a polite exchange of words, as you can imagine
Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Life and Style
Britons buy more than 30 million handsets each year, keeping them for an average of 18 months
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is reported to be in final negotiations to play Doctor Strange for Marvel although the casting has not yet been confirmed
film
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Alloysious Massaquoi, 'G' Hastings and Kayus Bankole of Young Fathers are the surprise winners of this year's Mercury Music Prize
musicThe surprise winners of the Mercury Prize – and a very brief acceptance speech
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Life and Style
fashion

World Beard and Moustache Championships held last week

News
video
Arts and Entertainment
Copycat culture: the Chateau Zhang Laffitte in China, top, and the building which inspired it, in Paris, bottom
architectureReplicas of Western landmarks are springing up in unlikely places
Sport
Rolando Aarons watches as his effort finds the corner of the Manchester City goal to give Newcastle the lead
footballManchester City 0 Newcastle 2: Holders crash out on home turf
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Sales Manager - Commercial Cable & Wire - UK

    £60,000 - £75,000: Recruitment Genius: As a top tier supplier to the major Aer...

    ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain