Jane Levi on ruby red cherries
Words: Jane Levi
One of the most memorable summer afternoons of my childhood was spent in an old cherry orchard opposite my aunt’s house near Sittingbourne in Kent. We climbed the ladders—helpfully left leaning against the tall trees—and gorged on the sweet, ripe, delicious fruit.
To my mind there is still something magical about cherries. Easy to pick up by their pert stalks, their natural shine and perfect single (or often, charmingly, double) bite-size tempts you to eat just one more—then another—while the firm skin protects your fingers from the staining juice of the soft fruit within. As easy to eat from a dessert bowl as the bag on the way home from the Market, they are one of the treats of the summer season.
Cultivated cherry trees have been in the UK, mainly growing in the south, since at least the first century when, Pliny tells us, the Romans sent them to Britain, and they have a long history in the ‘garden of England’: Henry VIII is said to have popularised them when his gardener Richard Harris brought them to Teynham in Kent in 1533.
Although their production experienced a major dip in the late 20th century (any link to our scrumping activities being entirely coincidental—the acreage of cherry orchards is said to have fallen from around 18,000 acres in 1950 to less than 1,000 in 2001) there has been a revival of cherry orchards in recent decades.
New trees have been grafted on to dwarf rootstock making them faster to mature, much easier to care for, and removing the need for long ladders to harvest from by hand. Kentish cherries as well as fruits from Hereford and Hertfordshire are once again one of the seasonal delights of English produce.
Along with other fine fruits, cherries have been sold on the streets and in the markets of London for centuries. Robert Herrick’s Cherry Ripe, the early 17th century poem in which he likens the tempting, briefly seasonal cherries to his lover’s ever-lovely lips, echoes the alluring cries of the (usually female) sellers: “Cherry-ripe, ripe, ripe, I cry, Full and fair ones; come and buy”.
Deliciously sweet yet acidulated
The woman illustrated in Francis Wheatley’s Cries of London (1791-95) calls out her wares with “Round and sound, five pence a pound, duke cherries.” The deliciously sweet yet acidulated duke cherry, known in France as an English cherry but often, confusingly, said in England to be of French origin (its name being an abbreviation for ‘may duke’ or Médoc) was a premium product then: the five pence a pound of 1795 would equate to about six pounds a pound (or £13 a kilo) now.
On National Cherry Day, we can celebrate the many varieties of cherry on offer today: the dark, sweet stella; the firm, tasty hertford; the yellow and red rainier and all the other brightly coloured, variously sweet fruits in between. We can sample cherry pies, brandies, vodkas and the glacé cherries on pastries, cook with dried sour cherries from Turkey, or dive into the bottled griottines of France and morellos of Italy.
In his Defence of Poesy (1583) Sir Philip Sidney’s tells us that good fiction is like “a medicine of cherries”—in other words, something both pleasurable and good for us. With this in mind, I shall certainly spend National Cherry Day reliving the excesses of my youth, testing as many varieties as I can—though this time, perhaps I’ll be doing it on the safe ground of the Market, rather than swaying atop a ladder.