The state of British cherries is a good news story. A little over a decade ago the indefatigable Henrietta Green felt compelled to launch a campaign called Cherry Aid as the British cherry industry was close to collapse. Nine in 10 of the nation’s cherry orchards had been lost and bland foreign imports constituted nearly 95 per cent of the cherries sold here. Just a decade on, the crop has increased six-fold and there is a good bet that the punnet you pick up in the supermarket will now be home-grown. The traditional heartlands in Kent and Hertfordshire are thriving and Staffordshire, Hampshire, and Scotland are also now producing fine fruit. The quintessential British stone fruit lives on, in all its chin-dribbling lusciousness. In fact, 16 July has even been declared National Cherry Day.
This is no mere fruity jingoism. It is a question of taste. Lots of countries take pride in their cherries, not least the French who hold street festivals celebrating those from Venasque, “the red diamonds of Provence”. But English cherries are arguably the very best, for both sweetness and juiciness. The season runs from June to September, with the later-season fruit often coming from Scotland. There are around 20 cherry varieties cultivated in the UK, with the traditional varieties often possessing the greatest complexity of flavour. Cherry-pick your varieties according to how early or late in the season you are. Merchant early on, Sweetheart and Penny in August or September. Other varieties – Frogmore Early and Merton Glory – are as evocatively named as they are delicious.
Cherries come in two types: sweet and sour. The latter is what you’ll want for cherry brandy and the odd recipe where tartness is at a premium, such as the famous dish from Aleppo, Kabab Karaz. Morello is the most famous sour variety: its ruby-red colour and sweetness is much favoured by chefs. They are also often found dried: plump, tangy things to enliven granola or a cereal bar. But I generally use sweet cherries. They are perfect in all desserts and it enables you to demolish a few raw as a chef’s treat while cooking.
Cherry and almond go together very well. Try this cherry frangipane tart or this variation on a Bakewell, that uses pistachio alongside the almond. We should not let our commitment to English cherries stop us from enjoying a French dessert, for cherry clafoutis has all the comfort of a traditional baked sponge pudding with the sophistication of a soufflé. If are lucky enough to have a glut, you can of course make a compote or jam. Or just buy the excellent Cherry Amour from the Islington deli Provisions to dollop on your scones.
My mother utterly loves Black Forest Gateau. Indeed the BFG was as much a staple of my childhood as Roald Dahl’s character. On Friday or Saturday nights, the gateau would be paraded around on a platter, as if it was the Imperial State Crown. Make your own using this recipe from Eric Lanlard. As kitsch as the kirsch.
Cherries and booze are a natural combination. Belgian-inspired cherry beer is increasingly popular and you can also make your own cherry brandy. Rachel Roddy cooks cherries in red wine to create an inky mound to top a pavlova, or simply to spoon alongside Greek yoghurt or mascarpone. Diana Henry does something similar using grappa in a quick last-minute dessert of hot cherries served with ice-cream.
They work well prepared in a savoury fashion too. Pop a handful of cherries into the oven for the last five minutes when you are baking a ripe cheese – a Camembert or St Marcellin. The result is like a redcurrant jelly but better. Try also making a simple cherry sauce, a classic accompaniment to duck or other rich game.
But sometimes, for a fruit as dear as they are (often upwards of £10 a kilo), eaten plain is best. For Fergus Henderson, “They need no adornment, other than perhaps a glass of pink champagne.” A fine recommendation. Life is just a bowl of cherries. Savour it, and savour them.