A traditional British fruit makes a cherry welcome comeback
A Slice of Britain: In the Garden of England, students race the clock to get a bumper harvest to market in peak condition
Clad in brown wellingtons and matching sunglasses, Bryan Neaves gulps the fresh air from Dover and is filled with chest-thumping pride. It was, after all, not far from his farm near Sittingbourne, in Kent, that Henry VIII ordered Britain's first cherry orchard to be built in the county after he tasted the fruit in Flanders.
"This is God's country for producing cherries," Mr Neaves exclaims. Cherry picking in the UK is beginning to blossom once more, with yields and varieties not seen for decades.
It was not always thus. Although three generations of Neaveses have grown the fruit at Little Sharsted Farm, they have had to keep the faith through some tough times.
At one time English summers were synonymous with hundreds of cherry orchards lined with trees bearing juicy, dark clusters of Bigarreau Gauchers or Elton Hearts. But then came the onslaught of foreign imports grown more economically in warmer southern European countries. Soon everyone was asking the obvious question: why should Britain be producing something that Europe can do faster, cheaper and in the right climate? The answer was it shouldn't: UK farmers stopped cultivating the fruit.
Such was the decline that, by 2008, only 750 acres of British countryside were left devoted to cherry orchards. "The fruit had become so delicate that just a drop of rain would see them bruised and ruined," says Mr Neaves. "Farming changed, foreign offerings emerged and cherries were expensive to cultivate and did not make money."
But he is desperate to see people buying British cherries again. Certainly, the expectation is that this year's season, which lasts until the end of the month, will see a bumper year for the fruit, with crops returning to levels not seen since 1985. Some 3,000 tonnes of cherries are due to be harvested by the end of the season, more than seven times the amount produced in 2000.
In part, celebrity chefs such as Raymond Blanc can claim some credit, with campaigns that encouraged supermarkets to buy British. A more important reason for the increase is the EU subsidies for farmers who plant new breeds that produce more cherries on smaller trees. Varieties grown on the Gisella 5 rootstock produce firmer varieties with skins that do not split so easily.
British cherry farmers' biggest enemy has always been the elements. Their newest weapon has been the introduction of £20,000-an-acre cherry tunnels, designed to protect the trees from rain and cold. As we walk into the one of Mr Neaves's 30 arched tents, light skitters off the white polythene and the humidity increases: the climate becomes something akin to the Mediterranean.
An army of 50 workers – students from Lithuania, Bulgaria and Poland – sporting belt-on wicker baskets is working frantically to ensure the fruit is picked and packed for delivery to supermarkets within 24 hours.
British cherry farms are capitalising on this geographic advantage, knowing they can hit supermarket shelves fresher and less tainted by transportation than their European competition.
The farm is run like an eastern European summer camp, with shopping trips and car boot sales organised as part of the weekend activities for the pickers. And the workers have little time to talk: with just £4 per crate packed, they are not keen on interruptions.
Svetlana Maneva, 22, from Yambol in Bulgaria, is here for her second summer, but she is not yet a total convert to the British cherry. "In Bulgaria, maybe the cherries are more natural and sweeter," the economics student says, glancing furtively at her employers.
The sense of anticipation this summer extends beyond the farms of Kent. "The yields are substantially larger – we're expecting 5.5 tonnes per hectare industry-wide this year and expect this to continue to increase from now on," says Nick Marston of the English cherry industry. Options are varied and include Kordia, a large, lighter-coloured fruit with a pungent taste, Napoleon Biggareau, a sweet, crunchy variety that dishes out a kick. Other colours are available, including the Governor Wood, a deep-flavoured yellow fruit with a dash of pink on the skin, and even the "white" cherries, named after their creamy-coloured exterior.
Carol Waller, 48, a mother of three, carefully plucks the shiniest Penny cherries. "I do this to support my children and buy their shoes," she says good-humouredly.
"It's really hard nowadays, though. I live at Boughton in Northamptonshire, where they won't give British people a job. I've been trying for three years in other English farms. Most say we're unreliable and we don't want to work."
Clearly, Little Sharsted Farm does not share this view. Mr Neaves is happy to hire anyone who wants to work and is enjoying his moment in the sun.
"Little Sharsted has always been our farm and will remain this way," he says. Henry VIII would, no doubt, have approved.
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