Fancy being a Cherry Grower?

It has been another great year for British Cherries. An estimated 4,500 tonnes were harvested this year, an 11% increase on the 4000 tonnes picked in 2014, which itself represented a 20% increase over 2013.

This is a fantastic turnaround when you consider that it was only in 2009 that Henrietta Green, concerned at the loss of a once thriving sector, launched the Cherry Aid campaign.  At that time commercial production had all but died out in the UK with the vast majority of cherries being imported from Turkey and most of the rest being air-freighted from the USA.

The biggest factor in this turnaround was the development of dwarfing rootstock.  Traditional cherry trees grow up to about 60 feet high, making the crop almost impossible to protect from birds and very difficult to harvest.

The man responsible for breeding the rootstock Gisela 5 is Dr Werner Gruppe, a German scientist, who then licensed Gisela in the USA so that every nurseryman who wants to use it must pay royalties.  Whilst other dwarfing rootstocks have subsequently been developed Gisela 5 remains the most popular for consistent cropping.  Dr Gruppe must now be a very wealthy man, having perhaps learnt by Britain’s previous failure to register and protect the rootstock bred here that are now used worldwide in apple growing.

Commercially, the far smaller trees are usually grown in polytunnels in the UK, which protect the fruit not only from birds but also the weather – one hail storm can completely destroy the crop.  The costs of setting up are high – in addition to the cost of the rootstock and polytunnels add the installation of drip irrigation and the fact that the trees will not bear fruit for the first couple of years – five before they reach their full cropping potential.  However, this is a vast improvement on the time it took on traditional rootstock.

An audit carried out by a British cherry industry body reports that the average age of cherry growers is around a decade younger than the average age for farmers generally, so the future looks promising.

Domestically, or on a smaller commercial scale, the dwarf trees are usually netted rather than grown under polythene.  Whilst this does leave them at the mercy of the weather it still protects the fruit from birds.

Whilst this year’s season is over (it runs from around the end of June until the beginning of August) now is the time to order trees for planting in the New Year.  Before deciding which varieties to order, a little bit of background:

A Brief History

Wild cherries are found all over Western Europe; however these are mostly the native “Bird Cherry”, Prunus avium, so-called of course because the birds got most of the fruit.   In Britain, Devon was the county best known for these wild cherries, or “Mazzards” as they are called here, (“Geans” elsewhere in the UK or “Guines” in France).  A mother Mazzard orchard has been established at Landkey, near Barnstaple, in North Devon to preserve these ancient varieties and they can still be purchased via Thornhayes Nursery.   Wild cherries are small (a high proportion of stone to flesh) and sour and usually bottled or made into jam.   It is probable that farmers once planted them as a decoy for their other crops so they may still have a part to play in Agroforestry or Permaculture.

In the East, on the shores of the Black Sea, another variety, Prunus cerasus, grew wild and it was this, when cultivated, that gave the sour Morello cherry that is so esteemed when cooked.  Cultivated cherries, both sweet and sour, were probably brought to Britain with the Romans and, by the Middle-Ages, were widely grown in Monastic and private gardens.  Kent was at the centre of British commercial cherry growing right from the start, both because of its proximity to London and also because the well-drained sandy soil there suited the cherry.

Although cherries were evidently popular from early times, it was not until the mid-seventeenth century that some unknown grower had the bright idea of crossing the sweet and sour varieties to produce something special of our own.   They were called Dukes although the French called them Anglais in recognition of their origins.  Dukes are sharp enough to cook but sweet enough to eat fresh, the variety May Duke is still available today.

Subsequent cherry breeding in the UK was really dominated by one man, Thomas Andrew Knight from near Ludlow, who developed such varieties as Waterloo, widely regarded as the finest flavoured dessert cherry of all.   Throughout the 19th century commercial cherry growing expanded throughout the UK.  The orchards around the Tamar provided such a wonderful display of blossom that special boat trips were organised at blossom time, with repeat trips later in the year for the harvest.

Although many modern cultivars are now available, for example the ubiquitous Stella, it would be a shame for some of the well flavoured older varieties to die out.  When choosing which to plant you will of course want to cover the full growing period but will also need to ensure you have varieties that will cross-pollinate according to their flowering period.  All cherries do best in sheltered south-facing positions although Morello cherries can be grown against a north-facing wall, and are reasonably self-fertile.  Buy from a grower with a good range who can advise on your situation.

A Short-list of Heritage Varieties

Although this article is aimed predominantly at those who might wish to grow cherries commercially, that does leave a gap to be filled by home growers.  From my observation, commercial growers seem to be concentrating almost entirely on black dessert cherries.  Whilst I have seen the occasional “cooking” cherry for sale, most of these have actually been dessert cherries that didn’t quite make the grade visually.  This is not at all the same as a sour cherry, which has a much better flavour when cooked.  The best is Morello, which has the added advantage that it can be grown on a north-facing wall.  Montmorency is another heritage cooking variety, which makes excellent jam.

Duke Cherries are a cross between sweet and sour cherries, you can cook with them but when fully ripe they can also be eaten straight from the tree.  May Duke is the best example of this category, and although pollination will be improved if you have another tree with which to cross-pollinate it is semi self fertile.  Birds seem to leave it alone.

The second gap in the commercial market is for the white dessert cherries, of finer flavour than the black ones but more difficult to transport, hence the reason commercial growers leave them alone.  Consider the traditional variety Napoleon which retains a crisp bite and has a not overly sweet flesh.  Knights Bigarreau is similar and Merton Glory another good example, but quite soft.

Of the black dessert cherries a traditional variety to consider growing is Waterloo, bred by Thomas Knight by crossing May Duke with Bigarreau.  It has a firm dark flesh, fine flavour and is known not to split in wet weather.

Serving Cherries

  • Dessert Cherries

Dessert cherries are best eaten raw.  Whilst chilling deadens the flavour of most soft fruit it actually improves cherries by tightening their skins.  In Turkey, or Greece, you might be served cherries on a bed of ice, an idea you might like to replicate.

Cherries with Chocolate Dipping Sauce

I was absolutely delighted to see local cherries on a restaurant menu this year served with just a chocolate dipping sauce.  This type of simplicity is something you usually only see abroad – for example in Italy, where you might be offered a perfectly ripe pear with Pecorino cheese.  It shows confidence on the part of the chef to be this restrained; confidence both in the quality of the ingredients and in not needing to show off their cooking skills.   In France cherries accompany fresh goat’s cheese – another simple pairing that works wonderfully well.

  • Cooking Cherries

The British used to be very good at understanding the need for some acidity in fruit that is to be cooked, for example, the breeding of specific cooking apples is uniquely British and of course the Dukes – a cross between a dessert and the sour Morello cherry, were also developed here.  I am not however claiming that we are the only ones to recognise the culinary value of sour cherries – in their dried form they are frequently used in Middle Eastern cookery.  Perhaps such classics as Duck with Cherries tastes good with sour cherries but they are in such limited supply that I haven’t had the opportunity to try.

Sour cherries are more easily found bottled than fresh and of course if you are lucky enough to grow your own preserving them will be essential.

The best and easiest way of preserving cherries is in Brandy – then you get both alcoholic fruit and the liquor to drink.  Although Brandy is the traditional spirit with cherries, you can use others but remember that in order to act as a preservative in their own right the alcohol needs to be 40˚ proof.  If you use anything weaker you will need to preserve the whole by sterilising in a water bath (88˚C for 10 minutes or 82˚C for 15 minutes).  By this method a light sugar syrup will suffice.

I can recommend the bottled cherries sold by The Somerset Cider Brandy Company – Morello Cherries preserved in Apple eau-de-vie and popularised in a cocktail by restaurateur Mark Hix, known as the “Hix Fix”.

What else can you do with bottled cherries? Black Forest Gateau comes to mind and when properly made this ceases to be a cliché and you understand why it became popular in the first place.  It was interesting to see this challenge set recently in Great British Bake Off because it cemented in my mind what makes it “properly made” – fresh cream filling, Morello cherries, and a dark, “mirror finish” chocolate coating.   Here is the link to the recipe from former Bake Off winner John Waite, I’m sure I can’t do better than him!

What I usually do with bottled cherries is serve them with ice cream – my version of Leche Merengada with its subtle cinnamon note is perfect.  If you really want to go to town you could add broken up chocolate brownie and chocolate sauce to make a very special Knickerbocker Glory.

Tiptree make a Morello Cherry jam, which you can use instead of raspberry jam in a Bakewell Tart – the combination of cherries and almonds is classic.

Pickled cherries are good with cold meat, especially tongue and rabbit.  They are easy to make and I give the recipe here.

If you are cooking with fresh cherries, I wouldn’t bother stoning them first.  Not only is it a lot of faff but also the stones add something of their almond flavour to the dish.  I have given a recipe for Cherry Clafoutis, with a lightly spiced batter, using whole cherries but if you want to make it with pitted remember to use more as they will take up less space in the batter.


Pickled Cherries

Almond Tart


Leche Merengada (Ice Cream)

Cherries with chocolate sauce


The Origins of Gisela Rootstock

English Cherry Production

Heritage Cherries


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