After more than three decades of decline, and in the face of stiff competition from Europe and California, the English cherry may be making a comeback. But these are not the cherries of old, which once filled the Kent vales with their foliage.
The English cherry season has just begun. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Information Bureau says shoppers can expect to pay pounds 2- pounds 2.20 a pound, compared with pounds 1.30- pounds 1.50 for French and Spanish and pounds 2.80- pounds 3 for Californian. In recent years, however, the issue has been less price than availability. The English cherry seemed to be teetering towards extinction.
Growers estimate that in the 1950s, up to 30,000 acres were devoted to the cherry. By the late Eighties this had fallen to 2,000: the crop, about 1,600 tonnes, was a fraction of former levels. Despite its longevity - the first large-scale orchards were established at Teynham in Kent by Henry VIII's fruiterer, Richard Harris - the English cherry was always unpredictable. It tended to split when rained upon. It was eaten by birds. It grew on tall trees - up to 50ft high - which required brave and skilful pickers using long ladders, from which they frequently tumbled.
By contrast, the climate in France and Spain was more reliable. There was less need for netting or 'bangers' - people scaring birds with tin cans - because most of the birds had been shot. 'I don't think they treat their wildlife with quite as much respect as we do,' one English grower said last week.
Many of the varieties that were grubbed up will never return to commercial production. They survive in fruit 'museums' such as the Brogdale Horticultural Trust at Faversham, Kent, where more than 200 varieties of superannuated cherry are preserved, from the once-popular Frogmore Early to the more exotic Bigarreau Burlat and Noir de Guben.
Should we bother growing cherries in Britain? Yes, says Simon Brice, chairman of the newly formed National Summer Fruits Association: the climate is 'absolutely excellent for soft fruit - you don't want a sun-scorched country, because that produces a frightful flavour. You need a more gentle climate. The quicker something ripens the poorer the flavour.' Mr Brice's father grubbed up the cherry orchards at Mockbeggar Farm, near Rochester, in 1957. In 1985 the cherries returned to Mockbeggar and in 1990 Mr Brice won a deal with Marks & Spencer.
According to Douglas Worley, who grows 30 acres near Maidstone and supplies Waitrose, Safeway and Sainsbury, 'the market out there for the big black English cherry is probably insatiable'.
Today's English cherry, however, is likely to be Canadian in origin, bred to be split-resistant and grown on dwarf rootstocks: 11 or 12ft high. Researchers are aiming for trees no more than 6 or 7ft high and 3ft across, easily nettable and with no need for ladders. 'We want to grow cherries, not wood,' says Mr Worley.
The decline in the acreage also appears to have halted. In 1990 it grew, by 75 acres.
'I see all these beautiful cherries in the future like a mirage in the distance,' says Mr Brice. 'I am very bullish. I just don't accept the argument that there is no chance for the English cherry. I know there is.'