With its gentle climate, rich soils and bountiful coastal waters, Kent is a land of plenty when it comes to food and drink. apples, cherries, hops; Kent’s food and drink by local author Naomi Dickins will appeal to all those with an interest in the county’s history and its culinary heritage.
Prunus avium (the name translates as ‘bird cherry’) is also known by the names ‘Wild Cherry’, ‘Sweet cherry’, ‘Gean’ and ‘Mazzard’. Confusingly, there is another species that we actually call the ‘Bird Cherry’ (Prunus padus), which has bitter-tasting fruits that are just too astringent for human consumption, but the birds aren’t quite as fussy as we are.
Cyrre in Anglo-Saxon and cerasum in Latin, Kerasous, Turkey, is where it was believed cherries first found their way into Europe. In fact, the fruit is indigenous to most of the continent and it has been a common food source since prehistory. The popularity of cherries as a culinary delight is easily traced through documented history.
We know that Kent cherries were prized by the Archbishop of Canterbury from at least the 1300s and there is evidence that they commanded good prices at market during the medieval period, but it seems that, in addition, they have long held value for their health-giving qualities. Culpeper writes about the differing properties of the diverse varieties of cherry commonly found in the British Isles but is most impressed by the usefulness of cherry tree sap, which he recommends for almost any ailment from a sore throat to kidney stones!
Perhaps Culpeper was rather fulsome in his praise of this pretty little fruit but it appears that his hyperbole might have been founded in fact: researchers are only just beginning to record its potent health benefits and have found that the anthocyanins it contains (like other red and purple coloured fruits such as dark-skinned grapes, red apples and blueberries) have powerful anti-inflammatory properties; these compounds also work to reduce levels of uric acid in the bloodstream, thereby lessening symptoms of gout, and it is possible that they might even relieve pain and stiffness associated with osteoarthritis. No wonder the people of Kent are such hale and hearty folk!
Whether you like your cherries blush, black or red, fresh, cooked or juiced, there are hundreds of written recipes for cherry dishes and the cherry has long been enormously popular as a culinary ingredient. Some recipes, like one given in the fourteenth-century Forme of Cury, compiled by the ‘master cooks of King Richard II’, are surprising and might not appeal to the modern palate; this dish of almonds and cherries, cooked and served with ‘good bread’, and ‘flourished’ with anise, includes the ground cherry stones among its ingredients (they impart an intense almond-like flavour). Others are expensive: in his 1596 The Good Huswife’s Jewell, Thomas Dawson offers us a ‘close tarte of cherries’ that features exotic cinnamon, ginger, rosewater and muscadine syrup in its list of ingredients. But it was a very simple bowl of fresh Kent cherries, ripe and flavoursome, that prompted Henry VIII to dub this county the ‘Garden of England’.
When William Lambarde made his perambulation of the county in 1570, he was struck by its fecundity and wrote: ‘In fertile and fruitfull woodes and trees, this country is most floryshing …as for ortchards of aples, and gardeins of cherries, and those of the most delicious and exquisite kindes that can be, no part of the realme (that I know) hath them, either in such quantitie and number, or with such arte and industrie, set and planted.’
By this time, Richard Harris’ mother orchards at Teynham, planted for Henry VIII some thirty years before, were well established and would have presented Lambarde with a stunning spectacle. Today, the descendants of those first, bountiful saplings are a staple feature of the Kent countryside, dappling the landscape with their April blossoms and dazzling with their July fruits. The cherry has become so much a part of the identity of the area around those original plantings that, in 1949, the emblem of a fruiting cherry tree and the motto ‘known by their fruits’ were incorporated into the Sittingbourne and Milton coat of arms; the same motto and the symbol of five red cherries were incorporated into the Swale crest in 1977. Harris’ arboricultural adventure was a runaway success but the level of skill and care necessary for his achievement should not be underestimated as ‘the cherry is a notoriously difficult crop to grow.
The cherry varieties grown commercially today were cultivated at Kent’s East Malling Research Station, which was originally established in 1913 for the purposes of studying fruit production. The unique combination of Kent’s soils and munificent microclimate might favour the cherry’s prosperity, but care must be taken to plant compatible varieties which are likely to cross pollinate efficiently, and a sensible cherry grower will plant varieties that come into season in succession so as to avoid the waste of a cherry glut.
‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now Is hung with bloom along the bough, And stands about the woodland ride Wearing white for Eastertide.’
One person who knows better than most the joys and hazards of cherry farming is Michael Dallaway. At his three Kent orchards in Sandhurst (and the one just across the county border in Northiam), Michael produces a unique, completely pure, fresh cherry juice, made with approximately 3 kg of cherries per litre… and nothing else.
His orchards are stocked with six different, good-flavoured varieties, ensuring a good spread of cropping across the season, and the farm’s produce is sold at farmers’ markets and farm shops across Kent, London and the southeast. When Michael’s late father introduced the cherries to the family business in the 1980s, he was seen to be taking a risky gamble but, luckily, it was a gamble that paid off and twenty years later, when the time came to make a decision about renewing the farm’s ageing apple orchard, Michael took the plunge and replaced those trees with cherries as well. As he says, ‘we could always sell what we grew ten times again each year, so it seemed to make sense!’
As well as selling fresh fruit and the farm’s unique cherry juice, the Dallaways have introduced two ‘Kentish Tipples’: a cherry brandy and a cherry vodka, both of which are flavoured with the smooth, rich warmth of their summer orchard fruits. Another diversification project was the launch of their innovative ‘Rent-a-Cherry-Tree’ sponsorship scheme whereby individuals can ‘lease’ a tree on an annual basis; members of the scheme receive regular updates about their tree’s development throughout the year and are invited to enjoy the orchards across the seasons, from a walk among the spring blossoms to the gathering of their tree’s crop in high summer. The scheme has been popular with people looking to enjoy local, seasonal fruit at its best and Michael says that many of their members bring along both older and younger family members to learn about and enjoy the cherries at picking time.
As Kent has been at the very heart of cherry production for centuries, it is little wonder that so many varieties have been named for places or people of the county; the Bradbourne Black and Kentish Reds, the Wye Morello and Rodmersham Seedling all boast proudly of their provenance but perhaps the ‘true’ Kentish cherry could be considered to be Napoleon (or Naps), a blush, Bigarreau type cherry which, to our forebears, would have been a familiar feature of the landscape. Alongside the cherry trees would have been the equally familiar cherry pickers’ ladders, hugely elongated versions of their domestic cousins, widesplayed at the bottom for stability and built to reach into the canopies of trees that grew to well over 70 feet.
Movement of these essential pieces of any cherry grower’s equipment took careful planning and considerable manpower, and the risk to pickers of falling was the stuff of today’s health and safety officers’ nightmares! Modern cherry varieties are grown on dwarfing root stocks, such as Gisela 5 or Colt, and their height is further limited to ensure maximum fruit production and ease of harvesting, sometimes by pruning out the growing shoot or by tying branches down to encourage strong lateral growth (where the fruits will form). This sort of orchard management is labour intensive, and it can take five years to create a well-shaped and productive tree, but trees managed in this way are far more economical of space and nutrition and, ultimately, they produce more usable fruit.
Excerpt from Apples, Cherries, Hops: Kent’s Food and Drink by Naomi Dickins (Amberley Publishing)