IT'S THE WEEKEND: Food and drink - A vintage crop for British cherries

First published in News

British cherries have arrived extraordinarily early and the fruit is larger, sweeter and juicier than we have had in years.

This vintage crop is a result of the UK’s third warmest spring on record1, and the contrast of warm days and cooler nights. Orchards are seeing an average drop in temperature from day to night of eight degrees, and this difference in temperature leads to firm, flavourful cherries with darker skin.

Growers are expecting to double last year’s total production and sell 4,000 tonnes of home-grown cherries, according to British Cherries, the industry body that represents over 70 per cent of the growers.

It is believed cultivated cherries were introduced to Britain in the first century AD. Legend has it that you can trace the route of old Roman Roads in Britain by looking out for wild cherry trees. It has been suggested that Roman legions spat the stones from the fruit as they marched through Britain.

Over the last ten years, the industry has invested in smaller Gisela dwarf rootstock high-yielding trees that can be easily picked and covered for protection in the growing season. When previously the vagaries of British weather could ruin a whole orchard of fruit, this new technology safeguards the crop and ensures consumers only receive exceptional fruit.

Cherry farming had dramatically declined by the end of the 20th century with only 300 tonnes of cherries produced. After the UK joined the Common Market, British growers simply could not compete with cheaper imports.

Cherry fans can get their hands on a number of varieties that ripen at different times in the season. ‘Merchant’ cherries are available now and can be distinguished by their dark red skin and large size, followed by others including exclusive English variety ‘Penny’, alongside ‘Kordia’ and ‘Sweetheart’, which ripens towards the end of the season.

British cherries do more than just taste and look good - studies have shown that cherries’ skin is so dark because of potent antioxidants called anthocyanins, which are packed with anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-cancer properties2.

A spokesman from the British Cherries industry body said: “In total the British cherry harvest is expected to be £20 million, up from £10 million last year, and this year is set to last longer than ever, well into September.

Celebrity chef Rachel Khoo, host of the BBC’s The Little Paris Kitchen, said: “I had a cherry tree in my garden when I was growing up and couldn’t resist picking and eating them every day during the short season.

“These days I love experimenting with traditional recipes and giving them a modern cherry twist. They are perfect pickled in a savoury salad with courgettes and a sprinkle of feta, or in a sauce with crispy duck breast on a bed of polenta.”

But cherries don’t just look good, they are full of goodness too, like antioxidants and vitamin C. Cherries are also a rich food source of the hormone melatonin, which promotes healthy sleep patterns.

If you want try some Gwent-grown cherries, head to the farm shop at Llanvihangel Crucorney Fruit Farm on Midway Lane, Mardy, Abergavenny.

Varieties grown in Britain that will be on shelves over the next few weeks include:

• Merchant is one of the earliest cherries to ripen. The fruit is large, sweet, and dark-red, with a good flavour.

• Sunburst has large dark fruit, with a rich cherry flavour.

• Stella is medium sized so good for smaller members of the family. The dark-red fruit is very sweet and juicy.

• Skeena produces very large fruit with a good flavour.

• Regina has large dark fruit that has a firm texture.

• Kordia is a mid-season cherry that is medium-large in size, has firm flesh and a good flavour.

• Lapins starts the second half of the season and has large dark-red/black juicy fruits with dark flesh.

• Sweetheart as its name suggests, produces cherries that are predominantly sweet but they are not sugary to taste. Sweetheart ripens towards the end of the British cherry season.

• Penny has outstanding quality and is the latest cherry to ripen. Penny is a black cherry that is large, firm and very sweet to eat.

Recipes from Rachel Khoo

Summer salad with feta and pickled cherries

Serves 4 as a starter

Preparation time 10 minutes, cooking time 10 minutes

Pickled cherries

50 ml red wine vinegar

1 tbsp sea salt

150ml water

100g caster sugar

200g cherries, halved and stones removed

1 medium courgette, stalk removed

1/2 firm cantaloupe melon, skin and seeds removed

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

pinch of sea salt

small handful mint leaves

100g feta

Place the red wine vinegar, salt, water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes, stirring to make sure all the salt and sugar has dissolved. Take off the heat, pour into a bowl or container and leave to cool for 5 minutes. Add the cherries and leave to cool to room temperature.

Use a speed peeler or mandolin to make courgette ribbons the length of the courgette. Thinly slice with a knife or use a mandolin to thinly slice the melon into long strips. Toss the melon in a bowl with the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Spread on a large platter. Sprinkle on the mint, crumble on the feta and scatter over the cherries. Drizzle a couple of tbsps. of the pickling liquid over the top.

Crispy skinned duck breast with a cherry sauce and creamy spinach and polenta

Serves 4, Preparation time 20 minutes, cooking time 30 minutes

4 x small duck breasts (about 160g each)

Sea salt

Black pepper

150ml whole milk

600ml chicken stock 150g coarse cornmeal 4 tbsp crème fraîche

100g fresh spinach

sea salt and black pepper

150ml red wine (approx. 1 small glass)

250ml chicken stock

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

2 tsp honey

150g cherries, halved and stones removed

½ tsp cornflour

1 tbsp water

knob of butter

Preheat the oven to 160°c (fan). In the meantime make the polenta: place the milk and chicken stock into a pot. Bring to a boil. Slowly pour the cornmeal into the boiling liquid continuously stirring with a wooden spoon as it thickens. Turn the heat down to low. Stir at regular intervals to stop the polenta sticking. When the polenta starts to come away from the pan (about 15 minutes) and thicken to a mash potato consistency, stir in the crème fraîche and spinach. Taste for seasoning.

Lightly score the skin of the duck breast with a sharp knife. Season the duck breasts with plenty of salt and pepper. Heat a heavy based non-stick frying pan. Place the duck breast skin side down and gradually turn up the heat. Cook for about 5-7 minutes or until most of the fat has rendered and the skin has become crisp and golden brown. Turnover and cook for another couple of minutes on the other side. Place the duck breast in a baking dish in the oven for 5 minutes. Remove the duck breasts from the pan (do not wash the pan) and place the duck breasts in a warm place covering the flesh with aluminium foil to rest, but leaving the skin exposed.

To make the sauce, pour off the excess fat from the duck frying pan. Get the pan hot again. Add the red wine and let it bubble for a minute before adding the stock and bring it to a boil. Whisk the cornflour with the water and whisk it into the sauce. Continue to stir until the sauce has become thick and glossy (about 5 minutes). Add the red wine vinegar, honey and taste for seasoning. Take off the heat and stir in the cherries and butter.

Slice up the duck breast into thin slices. Place on a heap of creamy spinach polenta and spoon over plenty of the cherry sauce. Serve immediately.

Smashed chocolate liquorice meringues with whipped cream and cherries

Serves 6 Preparation time 30 minutes, baking time 1h15 minutes

3 medium egg whites

150g soft dark brown sugar

30g cocoa powder

40g soft black liquorice sweets, very chopped finely

125g dark chocolate, roughly chopped

¼ tsp salt

200ml whipping cream

200g cherries

30g dark chocolate

Preheat the oven to 120°C (fan). Place the chocolate and the liquorice bit in a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of just simmering water (don’t the base touch the water). Once melted take off the heat and leave to cool for 5 minutes.

Begin to whisk the egg whites with the salt until very frothy, then gradually crumble in the sugar while whisking continually. Whisk until the egg whites reach quite firm peaks. Sift in the cocoa powder and pour in the cooled melted chocolate. Fold until the cocoa powder and chocolate are incorporated. Spoon 6 heaps onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper. Bake for 1h 15 minutes or until crisp and dry on the outside.

Whip the cream to soft peaks. Cut the cherries in half (I like to keep the stalks on for decoration).

To serve, crumble up the meringue along the serving plate (I like to mix it up with some large pieces and some small ones). Place the whipped cream in a piping bag and make dots of cream randomly in the plate. Dress with the cherry halves prettily. Use a vegetable peeler or a grater to add little flakes of chocolate to the top.

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