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

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - words by ruth chan­dler recipes and food styling by alison walker lo­ca­tion pho­to­graphs by an­drew mont­gomery food pho­to­graphs by philip webb

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.

BOT­TLED CHER­RIES

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

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