BRITISH IN PARTICULAR
To highlight the delicious ingredients that are farmed, fished, made and grown up and down the country, we meet the remarkable producers who help to bring them to our table
We look at the delicious ingredients farmed, fished, made and grown in the UK. This month: cherries
Available in a broad palette of reds, with glossy skin and sweet, succulent flesh, the cherry has an old-fashioned glamour that inspires a devoted following. Nowhere is this more evident than at an orchard in Northiam on the Kent/sussex border. Strewn with picnic blankets, folding chairs and people enjoying the summer sunshine, it’s where cherrylovers of all ages can come to harvest their own crop. By renting a tree, they can pick the fruit at the point of perfect ripeness, while indulging in the wealth of nostalgia that cherries seem to evoke in us Brits. “I receive emails and letters from customers who say how much they loved coming to gather their cherries and that the whole family – children, parents and grandparents – went home happy, with purple-stained fingers,” says the orchard’s owner, Michael Dallaway, who runs the eight-acre site at Cooks Yard Farm. “I came up with the idea of letting out the trees in 2007 while working with a supermarket. I didn’t want to spend all year cultivating the fruit just so someone else could potentially do a bad job of selling it. We’d just planted this new orchard and I knew we had to approach it differently.”
The ‘Rent a Cherry Tree’ scheme is just one branch of Michael’s enterprise, which produces up to 70 tonnes of the fruit per year and was started by his own father, Frederick. Although originally a banker, Frederick left the financial world to do something different with his life when his father died in the mid-1980s. He rented and then bought land to grow apples originally, but when he noticed a dearth of cherries on the market, he focused on this traditional local speciality instead. After Frederick died in 2000, Michael, who had also been pursuing a career in banking, decided to take on the farm, continuing to make it very much a family affair with the help of his wife, Natasha, and mother, Ros. “I’d planted some trees and knew a little about the business,” Michael says, “but there was so much to learn.”
As with any kind of agriculture, cherry growing is an unpredictable business – when the wet summer of 2010 resulted in a seemingly catastrophic amount of split fruit,
Michael searched for a local drinks producer who had a press he could use to create a trial batch of juice. Disaster was averted: the pure, unsweetened drink turned out to be a great success. Not only was it delicious, but its anti-inflammatory properties also led to it being lauded as a great antidote to gout and the symptoms of arthritis. Now, the pickers who harvest the trees that aren’t rented by the public are paid to collect second-class cherries for pressing, as well as premium ones to be sold fresh. “The birds and badgers have lost out, but they still get their fair share,” Michael says.
The luck of a harvest can, of course, swing the other way; last year, some individual trees produced an incredible 60 kilos, while the average is between 15 and 20. By growing 25 different varieties (five at Northiam) – from ‘Merchant’, which is the first to ripen, to ‘Regina’, the last – Michael not only staggers the picking, but spreads the risk of a poor crop. “‘Kordia’ has big black fruit and, for me, a stand-out flavour,” Michael says. “It’s a bit susceptible to frost at blossom time, which is its only weak spot.”
Michael’s cherries and juice are sold from a roadside trailercum-farmshop during the eight-week harvest period, which runs from June to August. In addition to this, he and his team take a stall at the farmers’ markets in Lewes, Tunbridge Wells, Penshurst, Guildford and London every weekend: “We have a strong following because of the difference in taste between our large, juicy, locally grown cherries and the smaller, less tasty, imported ones. If we get enough rain, sunshine and warmth, the conditions in this part of the country are perfect. Customers also like the fact they can choose from several varieties.” Days at the farmer’s market can be long (they rise at 5am and return at 7pm) but Michael ensures he’s always at home in time to say goodnight to his three children – Freddie, five and a half, William, two, and Constance, ten months.
There is an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes work to carry out throughout the seasons. The winter is for general maintenance tasks, then, when the trees first come into flower,
a local honey producer brings his hives of bees to pollinate them. Michael enjoys taking time to appreciate this remarkable natural process: “If you sit under a tree on a lovely sunny day, all you can hear is the sound of pollinating insects – and the scent of the flowers is amazing.” In late April, the cherry tree renters are invited to a hog roast and guided walk around the orchard at blossom time. Michael spends the six weeks before harvest putting up nets to protect the fruit from the local avian population, although, due to their ground-nesting nature, blackbirds are experts at getting underneath: “They come and go at their leisure.” At the end of summer, Michael prunes his 8,000 trees – a major, physically demanding job that takes until September. After that, he makes sure he’s up to date with the orchards’ marketing and social media, as well as other general admin. This means that the only time off Michael gets is in January and February, when he enjoys going on holiday and spending time with the family.
Now, though, he is relishing early summer and the happiness that his traditional crop brings. Returning to the orchard in Northiam in mid-afternoon, he can still hear the laughter and chatter that rings out as dozens of people gather beneath the trees to collect and eat their delicious fruit.
Rent a Cherry Tree and Dallaways Cherries, Cooks Yard Farm, New Road, Northiam, East Sussex (rentacherrytree. co.uk). To apply to rent a cherry tree (£49 per year) during 2019, visit the website.
Preparation 15 minutes, plus standing Cooking about 45 minutes Pit the cherries if you prefer, but the stones will impart a pleasing almond flavour to the syrup – plus leaving them saves time. Any leftover syrup can be added to cocktails or drizzled over ice
375g granulated sugar 1 vanilla pod, split 1.1kg cherries
Heat the oven to 150ºc (130ºc fan oven) gas mark 2. Put the sugar and vanilla pod in a large pan with 900ml water. Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and bubble the liquid for 2 minutes without stirring. 2 Put the cherries in clean glass jars, packing them tightly but leaving a 1cm gap at the top. Carefully pour the hot sugar syrup over, so it covers the fruit completely.
Put the jars in a roasting tin. If you are using screw-top ones, screw the lid closed, then open by a quarter turn; for clip-top jars, put the clips over the hinge to hold in place but do not close. Cook the prepared cherries in the oven for 40 minutes, then seal the jars fully. Leave to stand for 24 hours. Test the seal to ensure there is a vacuum by trying to prise off the lid with a fingernail. If you can’t do this, the seal has worked and they’ll last a long time; otherwise, store in the fridge and eat within two weeks.
Five varieties of cherry are grown on the eight-acre site in East Sussex, with an extra 20 varieties being produced in three other orchards in Kent. Last year was a particularly plentiful harvest, with some trees producing up to 60 kilos of fruit. The eight-week harvest period runs from June to August, after which the orchard’s 8,000 trees are then pruned
Michael left his job in finance to take over the orchard from his father, and now rents cherry trees to the public in addition to selling produce at farmers’ markets, including cherry juice and cherry brandy and vodka