Sharp Practice

This year has been a bumper crop for British cherries, so I`m posting up a `from the archives` feature I wrote on sour cherries for The Observer on Sunday 8th July, 2001. Happily, you can still pick sour cherries from the Maynards PYO farm in Kent (see details below) or buy them from Brogdale Horticultural Trust in Kent.  For recipes, see Morello Cherry Ice in Lucky dip or turn to Cook now and click on to the equally delicious Cherry Batter Pudding.

`This world is but a cherry fair` wrote Chaucer, and on a warm summer`s day, with a bowl of juicy red Turkish cherries at my fingertips, it`s hard to disagree.  Yet, true culinary delight lies not with sugary trifles, but with the much neglected, intensely flavoured, sour cherry.  `They are one of the great gastronomical fruits, on a par with morels or asparagus`, states Heston Blumenthal, chef-owner of The Fat Duck in Bray.  His eagerness to sample the very first batch from France in a chilled cherry broth with black pepper and shiso leaf sorbet, set him back 40 a kilo. `They were very good, but I decided to wait a few weeks until the price had dropped a little,` he says, showing surprising restraint for a Michelin-starred chef.

Sour cherries are descended from the wild Prunus cerasus and can be divided into two categories: amarelle - a light coloured, clear juiced cherry; and griotte, a dark cherry with coloured juice.  Occasionally, you can find hybrid sweet and sour fruit which are often sold as Duke or Royale cherries.  They, too, are transformed when cooked with sugar into succulent power-packed morsels.

For centuries, Kent and East Sussex supplied the London markets with Kentish Red and Morello cherries, perfect for a shocking pink cherry ice, or sugar-and-cinnamon-dusted cherry fritters.  Today, you are only like to find them at Maynard`s Windmill Hill Farm, a Pick Your Own farm in Ticehurst, or at the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale Horticultural Trust in Kent.  At the latter, you can buy the fruit as it comes into season in July and August and, if it pleases you, order a couple of trees from the many different varieties they stock, such as the sour Kentish Morello or the semi-sour Knights Early Black.

Blumenthal, meanwhile, contents himself with buying direct from the French or Italian markets.  `We are currently serving them as an accompaniment to a poached-grilled Anjou pigeon breast,` he says.  `They are poached in the pigeon jus with quatre epices, then mixed with confit of pigeon leg and baked in a pastilla.  But they are also delicious served with duck or foie gras.`  His current passion is to add a muslin bag of cracked cherry stones to the simmering fruit.  `They release an intense almond flavour which is amazing` he explains, `but you need to watch the stones don`t go flying across the kitchen when you smash them with the base of a saucepan.`

With a couple of weeks before the season starts, I fully intend to pester my greengrocer to order in a some sour cherries, so that I can indulge in a cherry cookfest.  I just hope the kitchen survives being bashed by a saucepan.

Maynards, Windmill Hill Farm, Ticehurst, East Sussex

Brogdale Horticultural Trust:  Brogdale Road, Faversham, Kent ME13 8XZ


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