Cherry Oh Baby!
The powerful cherry industry in northern Extremadura combines scale and efficiency with legendary quality. Paul Richardson appreciates the sweet things in life
The city of Plasencia, itself one of the most attractive historic cities in Extremadura, has one of the region’s loveliest landscapes in its backyard. A few miles north east of the city lies a deep valley bisected by a fast-flowing river, the Jerte. As you drive along the valley on the N110 road towards Ávila, you can feel the landscape change from gentle bucolic countryside on the outskirts of town to the dramatic mountain scenery of the upper valley, where the peaks of Gredos sparkle with the last patches of winter snow.
If you come this way in late March or early April (the date is a moveable feast), be prepared for a spectacle with few rivals in natural beauty: the unforgettable sight of the Jerte valley’s cherry trees in full bloom. The trees in their full spring regalia cover the valley sides with snow-drifts of white blossom, filling the air with a subtle but pervasive perfume. The cherry blossom in the Jerte Valley, born as a local phenomenon some 40 years ago, has metamorphosed into a two-week Fiesta attracting thousands of visitors both Spanish and foreign.
For the 12,000 inhabitants of the Jerte valley life is, more than a bowl of cherries, a fruit-box full to the brim with them. The steep sides of the valley, which soar to Extremadura’s highest peaks at 2400m, are densely planted with an estimated 1 million cherry trees, interspersed on the higher slopes with chestnut and oak forests, and on the lower ones with olives, fig trees and vegetable patches. The valley’s small towns like Navaconcejo and Cabezuela del Valle are cherry-themed: souvenir shops sell cherry jams, liqueurs and cherry-trees in pots, while HAY CEREZAS is the sign most often seen on garage doors and supermarket shopfronts.
Cherries and cherry blossom may seem picturesque, but the local cherry industry is nothing if not hard-headedly professional. The sheer scale of the operation is permanently impressive. In a good year, the potential volume of cherries produced in the general area of El Jerte (which for official purposes includes neighbouring counties of La Vera and the valley of Ambroz) can reach no less than 35 million kilos, or if you prefer, 35,000 tons.
The cherry growers of the valley have always had a special place in their hearts for what they call the picota, a unique local variety which comes on stream in summer, is noted for its glorious sweet flavour and is characterised by its stalk, which breaks free from the cherry when picked. The picota accounts for 35-40% of the total crop in one or other of its traditional varieties Ambrunés, Pico Limón Negro, Pico Negro and Pico Colorado. Despite being a delicate fruit that needs to reach the consumer 10 or 15 days at most after picking, it is worth nothing that Jerte cherries, picota or otherwise, receive no post-harvest treatment, no chemical sprays or waxes that might interfere with their naturally wholesome qualities.
The Protected Designation of Origin Cereza del Jerte is active on various fronts – especially so at the start of the season, when the valley’s cherry industry grinds into action like some long-dormant machine. (What makes this product a tough call in promotional terms is the cherry’s short growing season, which presents both growers and marketers with a small but crucially important window of opportunity.) An important factor for the DO is being taken on board by the ENAC (Entidad Nacional de Acreditación) accreditation service, which corresponds to EU regulation UNE-45011 and is recognised in 50 countries worldwide.
The PDO’s annual campaigns, which are launched each spring with a brand new look (this year’s promotional literature has a childlike, storybook quality and a vaguely retro, 1960s feel) are destined not only for Spain but also for the Jerte cherry’s principal export markets, which receive around half of the total annual crop. (These markets are principally the UK, Germany, Italy and Belgium.) The Designation of Origin is behind the high-profile Picota del Jerte prize for excellence, which has gone to actress Blanca Portillo, chef Sergi Arola, radio broadcaster Juan Ramón Lucas and TV newsreader Pepa Bueno, among others. It also runs a competition for writers of micro-stories, and is a prime mover in the Jerte valley’s Cerecera festival, held in June and a positive feast of cherry-related actitivies from a Cherry Fair to open days at the valley’s cooperatives and ‘Gastronomic Days of the Picota Cherry’ in tandem with important chefs both local and national.
Of the five companies signed up to the DO, accounting for as much as 70-80% of local production, one rules the roost in no uncertain terms. The Agrupación de Cooperativas Valle del Jerte, which celebrates its twenty-fifth birthday this year, brings together no less than 16 smaller co-ops in an organisation that is to cherries what Bollywood is to movies – the world’s most prolific and efficient producer of an item that the consumer simply cannot get enough of.
The Agrupación is sited within a cherry-stone’s throw of the DO, and a brief walk down the hill brings me to the office of its president, Ángel María Prieto. While Ángel takes a phone call I peer at the decorations on his wall, which include a poster for the picota (‘Queen of Cherries’) and a 3D relief map of the Jerte showing in graphic fashion the deep gorge of the valley, a dramatic slash in the landscape running from north-east to south-west.
You don’t have to be a cherry farmer to work here – the Agrupación also sells raspberries, plums, chestnuts, figs both fresh and dried, and produces olive oil in its own mill under the label of the PDO Gata-Hurdes – but it helps. This super-co-op represents over 3,600 local cherry farmers whose plots have an average of just 1.5 hectares, many of them racked up on the steep terraces of the valley walls in a range of altitudes from 400 to 1100 metres above sea level.
Cherries and the Jerte go way back – at least to June 2nd 1352, when a group of emissaries from the King of Navarre stopped at Cabezuela del Valle on their way to Seville and were regaled with trout and cherries. The powerful industry that we know today was born in the 1960s, however, with the formation of the valley’s cherry cooperatives, and the Jerte kicked off its export career in 1992 with an ICEX-led promotion in the United Kingdom (a market that has since become very fond of extremeño cherries and picotas).
The 16 co-operatives making up the Agrupación, their president tells me, now exports a full 40% of its production. The company’s production figures are certainly impressive: when the season is in full swing, in June and July, as many as half a million kilos of cherries come through its doors every 24 hours, the coop’s annual throughput rising to a total of 16,000 tons – but the upward curve continues. ‘We could keep on growing – we haven’t reached our ceiling by any means’, says Ángel, pointing out that new pruning methods are leading to ever greater yields.
It is one of the challenges of the cherry as a fruit that it is not only highly perishable, but has a limited range of possible transformations. The Agrupación, and the Jerte valley in general, has bravely risen to this challenge, racking its brains to think of new ways of adding value, as well as shelf life, to locally-grown cherries and picotas. The valley’s superb cherry jams are produced by a local company, Frubosque, in a proportion of 55% fruit to 45% sugar. An exciting novelty from the Agrupación is its freeze-dried cherry powder, to which the consumer adds water for a delicious juice whose salutary effects on body and mind are borne out by research at the University of Extremadura. (This innovative product, which as yet has no brand name, is expected to hit the market later this year.) Then of course there is Licor de Cereza, a maceration of cherries in alcohol and syrup, and picotinas – whole cherries, preserved in cherry aguardiente.
But the cherry spin-off that most interests me personally is the aguardiente in which the picotinas are preserved, which has been sold for many years as a clear eau de vie, analogous but by no means inferior to the finest European kirsch. There is no tradition in the north of Extremadura of cherry distilling, Ángel informs me, though grape-based aguardiente was sometimes made in the days before the Jerte’s vineyards almost entirely disappeared.
The aguardiente de cereza has its origins in a mystery. In 1986, after a terrible season when excessive rainfall destroyed vast amounts of cherries, French and German companies took away lorry-loads of spoiled fruit. What exactly they intended to do with these cracked and crushed cherries was a matter of local debate, until a little investigation revealed the truth. And a home-grown kirsch began to be made in situ, presented in a thick clear-glass bottle containing 0.7 litres (a sleek new design has reduced the quantity to a half-litre after customers thought the old bottle seemed like an awful lot of hooch).
I am keen to see where the valley’s only cherry aguardiente is made, and Juan Luis Muñoz, production controller for transformed products at the Agrupación, takes me down for a look at the three giant stills each with a capacity of 3000 litres, hand made by the firm of Gómez in Zaragoza. The raw material for the aguardiente is any picota cherry – valued for its high sugar content and lack of stalk – which might not pass the quality test for fresh fruit owing to small defects or cracks in the skin. The cherries are lightly crushed without breaking the stones and fermented over 28 days into a ‘cherry wine’ of around 7% alcohol by volume. The distilling process results in a pure cherry alcohol to which water is added to bring the aguardiente down to a more acceptable 42% alc/vol.
Few things in Spanish food and drink are more completely excellent, it seems to me, than a shot glass of iced aguardiente de cereza after a large and satisfying lunch. Unless it’s a feast of fresh Jerte cherries, scoffed by the handful out of a big bowl in the middle of the table. Taking my leave of Juan Luis, I bought a box of the season’s first cherries from a family at a roadside stall in Navaconcejo, and drove out of the valley humming a Johnny Mathis song whose lyrics speak of life, positive thinking, and the capacity of this remarkable fruit to induce a state of blithe contentment in the consumer. And I quote:
Why are we here?
Where are we going?
It's time that we found out
We're not here to stay
We're on a short holiday
Life is just a bowl of cherries
Don't take it serious, life's too mysterious
You work, you save, you worry so
But you can't take your dough when you go, go, go
So keep repeating, it's the berries
The strongest oak must fall
The sweet things in life to you were just loaned
So how can you lose what you've never owned?
Life is just a bowl of cherries
So live and laugh at it all
NB to the Cereza del Jerte PDO: how about using this one in your next campaign?
The city of Plasencia, itself one of the most attractive historic cities in Extremadura, has one of the region’s loveliest landscapes in its backyard