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)

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