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British cherries make a sweet comeback

British cherries British cherries are sweeter as they have more time to ripen on the tree than imported fruit does

Britain's cherry lovers have something to celebrate this year, a bumper crop of home-grown fruit.

Sweeter than their foreign counterparts, fresher when they hit the grocer's and juicy to boot, British cherries are having a great year thanks to the sunlight they are getting, says Jon Clark, from industry body Total Cherry.

"The recent weather has been brilliant for them," Jon Clark says.

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"A 25C temperature is perfect for cherry production, the size, fruit, taste - all look good."

This year it looks like growers will produce 3,000 to 3,500 tonnes of fruit.

Partly its down to the cold spring, which meant the trees blossomed later and the fruit developed more slowly.

"Last year we had (bout) 1,000 tonnes for the whole year - so we do need to recoup that loss back," explains Clark explains.

In 2000 the UK only produced 400 tonnes of cherries, which had risen to 1502 tonnes in 2011, but then suffered a set-back last year with only 978 tonnes.

But even with a record crop there won't be enough British produce to satisfy demand, even while the British crop remains in season - which extends to six or seven weeks.

"The overall consumption in the UK over the next weeks is about 1,000 tonnes a week.

"We've only got half the volume to satisfy the British market, We need a lot more growers to keep up with demand.

Cherry facts:

Blossom (c) Andy Oliver
  • Belong to the genus Prunus, which includes plums, peaches, apricots and almonds
  • Most edible cherries come from either the wild cherry (Prunus avium) or the sour cherry (Prunus cerasus)
  • Cherries are thought to have been brought to Britain by the Romans in 1AD
  • Legend has it the routes of old Roman roads in Britain are marked by wild cherry trees as Roman legions spat out the stones while marching
  • Kent's cherry orchards are claimed to have been created on the orders of Henry VIII who planted a tree in 1533
  • The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale Farm is home to more than 300 varieties
  • Cherry stones contain amygdalin, which becomes cyanide when metabolised
  • At the start of the 20th Century Kent had more than 5,000 ha of cherry orchards. By the end of the century there were less than 600 ha.

Source: Defra/Total Cherry

While Britain has lost 90% of the cherry orchards it once had, the red fruits are now being replanted but the industry can't keep up with cherry-lovers' appetites, despite production being set to triple this year.

Cherry orchards increased by 17% between 2003 and 2008, according to Defra, Total Cherry say planting is up 15% year on year, but measured over the whole year 95% of cherries seen in shops are still imported from Spain, Turkey and the US.

There has been a concerted campaign to get people to turn back to British, as food and farming minister, Jim Paice says: "The taste of fresh cherries is as much a part of summer as the smell of freshly cut grass or a trip to the seaside."

Can you taste the difference between local and foreign imports?

Jon Clark thinks British cherries are definitely sweeter for one key reason.

"The biggest difference is the time allowed for fruit to develop on a tree. Sugars increase dramatically in the last few days before you pick the fruit.

"Europe have to pick before the cherry is properly ripe, so UK growers can leave their cherries for an extra few days - which means they can get so large, so juicy, and so dark - and can have up to 25% more sugars."

As British cherries can be picked off the tree, cooled down and "on the shelf the very next day", they are also the freshest, says Jon Clark.

They also do more than just taste and look good - studies have shown that cherries are full of anti-oxidants anthocyanins 1 and 2 , packed with vitamin c, are anti-inflammatory, are good for arthritis and a rich source of melatonin.

Eating cherries could also help with gout, researchers have found.

Arguably best enjoyed fresh, cooks adore them too.

In the Great British Food Revival, chef Gary Rhodes says: "Cherries are my favourite of red fruits - they are so lively - it's incredible.

British varieties:

British cherries

Merchant: One of the earliest to ripen. Large, sweet, and dark-red

Sunburst: Large dark fruit, rich flavour

Stella: Medium. dark-red, very sweet and juicy

Skeena: Large fruit with good flavour

Regina: Large dark fruit, firm texture

Kordia: Medium-sized, mid-season, firm flesh

Lapins: Second half of season, large dark-red/black with dark flesh

Colney: Late season. large, dark black fruit, superb quality, sweet

Sweetheart: Sweet but not sugary. Ripens end of season

Penny: Outstanding quality, latest to ripen. Black, large, firm, sweet

"There's so much flavour there. There's so much you can do with them."

He recommends making a cherry clafoutis to really enjoy the flavour.

One of the other main reasons that Britain is enjoying a cherry revival, is because orchardists have learned some hard lessons.

Growers across the UK in Kent, Herefordshire and the new areas of Hampshire and Staffordshire have been planting new cherry orchards that crop heavily on smaller trees.

Don Vaughan has been in the cherry industry for more than 30 years.

He explains the trees had become too hard to harvest: "The trees were getting older and were... huge trees. They had to be picked by women on ladders (after World War Two), you couldn't control the birds on the high trees so you lost crop."

Production had to be scaled back. A new tree root stock was introduced - Gisela 5, which meant that commercially viable modern varieties could be grafted on to it, and the trees didn't get too big.

"Now we have got dwarfed root stock, trees will be 8ft (2.4m) high and easier to manage, they can be kept outside and we can use plastic covers, nets to avoid fruit loss in bad weather, so what we have is more tonnage over a smaller area," explains Jon Clark.

While some varieties in the UK have retracted, Britain has also benefited from European knowledge on which varieties to use - and have almost now got the pick of the crops.

It makes it a lot easier for growers, but as it "can take three, four or five years before a tree is at optimum fruiting", says Jon Clark, there's a longer-term wait involved for anyone thinking of getting in to the business.

Now even growers in Scotland are also planting to try and extend the UK season.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for those sweet treats.

Because it's a short season and you should enjoy them while it's hot.

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