Food and drink: A second bite at the cherry (and the prune): Dried cherries: Joanna Blythman is just wild about the new dried cherry, and has always adored the best dried plums. So why are they so hard to find in Britain?

DRIED cherries? It sounded like a good idea - much better than most new foods, which seem to have been created in the sterile imagination of the marketing department. I had never heard of them, never mind eaten them. Allow me to let you into the secret.

Despite the fact that the international food world is little more than a global village, and the specialist foods on sale at Dean & DeLuca in New York, Fauchon in Paris and Harrods in London are depressingly similar, the dried cherry - which has taken the US gourmet market by storm - is scarcely known outside North America. Yet in the US, dried cherries have become a buzz ingredient, appearing with increasing regularity on smart restaurant menus.

If you tend to be cynical about food fashions, hold back until you have tasted these cherries. Shiny, deep garnet-coloured nuggets, nicely chewy but not tough, the flavour seems to explode in your mouth. If you have ever had the luck to taste a tart griotte or 'sour' cherry in the fruit bowl, just as it hits ultimate ripeness before rotting, you will recognise this fantastically aromatic cherry flavour.

In fact they prove so addictive, it is easy to nibble your way through a couple of ounces before you have even thought about sticking them in your muesli. When baked, their flavour lends its perfume extravagantly, cutting and complementing the dull, sugary sweetness of more routine dried fruits.

The 'discovery' of the dried cherry has trail-blazed a new range of dried fruits such as cranberries and blueberries. (The dried blueberries I have yet to sample. Cranberries, though still an interesting variation in the standard fruit cake mix, lack the cherry's flavour and pack a bitter punch, just as they do fresh.)

The wave of dried sour cherries in the US has its roots in the early Eighties when a Michigan farmer, Don Nugent, started experimenting with the annual over-supply of 'pie' or sour cherries in the area. Michigan is the cherry capital of the US, with fertile orchards nurtured by rich glacial soil that are protected from extreme temperature fluctuations by lake breezes. These modern orchards were pre-dated by a natural covering of wild pin cherry, chokecherry and black cherry trees: evidence of how ideally the land is suited to cherry cultivation. These days, Michigan orchards are famous for the Montmorency variety of sour cherry. Unlike sweet or Bing cherries - the kind we regularly get from California - the Montmorency was always in over-supply.

The dried cherry's potential was grasped by Justin Rashid, president of American Spoon Foods, a gourmet food company. 'They started off in local health stores, but no one really saw the future they had. Before that, the only preserving options were glace cherries or maraschino cherries. We worked to improve both their appearance and the drying technique, and we marketed them properly. Now they are becoming a staple in kitchens throughout the US,' he says.

The cherries are dried by what is known as the 'infusion' method. They are pitted, then frozen, then each 25lb is 'capped' with a 5lb block of sugar. When thawed, the excess juice produced is drained off, and the fruit goes through an eight to 12-hour drying process.

'We make cherries without any sugar at all, but these are popular mainly with the purists,' says Mr Rashid. (As one who is often accused of excessive fundamentalism, I would side with the wets on this one.) Unlike some other dried fruits such as apricots, there is no need for artificial additives to achieve the bright colour.

It takes 8lb of fresh Montmorency to produce 1lb of dried, which means they will never be cheap. In America just now, they cost about dollars 3.39 for 8oz. Whenever I have managed to buy them in specialist shops in London, the price has been as much as pounds 8 per lb and the supply erratic. The specialist food shop Villandry, at 89 Marylebone High Street, London W1M 3DE, (071-487 3816) has an order being shipped from the US, due to arrive by the end of October. If you find a source, let us know so we can inform readers via our Gastropod column.

If all else fails, here is the contact for anyone who wants to import them: American Spoon Foods, PO Box 566, Petoskey, Michigan, 49770, USA. Telephone: 616 347 9030.

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