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Time to Eat: Picota Cherries

Time to Eat: Picota Cherries
The Valle del Jerte might be an earthly Garden of Eden, but Rob Train finds that cherries, not apples, are the abundant fruit.

Despite carrying a name that could have been the work of Dante, the natural park of Gargantas de los Infierno – literally, the Throats of Hell – in Extremadura is renowned in Spain as an earthly Garden of Eden. A garganta, in this case, is a waterfall that has carved itself down the steep inclines of the two sierras that flank the Valle del Jerte - Tras la Sierra and Sierra de Tormantos. The foothills of these imposing ranges begin at around 1,000 metres above sea level, and contain the highest peak in Extremadura, Calvitero, which is almost 2,500 metres high. The valley meanders from Tornavacas at its northern extreme to the city of Plasencia at its southernmost boundary, and lies about two and a half hours to the southwest of Madrid.

Grandiose as it is, this natural reserve holds a trick up its sleeve that brings tourists flocking to its peaks and troughs for a unique annual event; each spring up to one million cherry trees explode into blossom, transforming the Valle del Jerte into a carpet of white that floods the steep hills and blankets the horizon. The flor, or blossom, lasts for between 10 and 15 days, depending on climatic conditions, and every year local tourism authorities update web-based prognostications to keep visitors abreast as to when the bloom is likely to begin.

It is Spain’s answer to the highlands of Scotland, and though not nearly as large, it is just as rugged and wild. Birds of prey, including vultures and the Iberian Imperial eagle, dot the endless cerulian sky, riding the valley’s thermal columns high above ambling black storks. Otters and mountain goats call Jerte home, as does the common salamander. It is said the lynx uses Extremadura as a thoroughfare, but as the only two active colonies are in southern Spain, this is likely wishful thinking
Time to Eat: Picota Cherries
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on the part of the local tourist board. Iberian wolves, though few in numbers, roam Extremadura, and the Valle del Jerte’s main artery – the Jerte River – supports wildlife of many shapes and forms, including an annual salmon migration that brims through its crystalline waters.

For the people of the Valle del Jerte – around 13,000 – the cherry tree is a raison d’être. Many livelihoods depend on the vast number of trees in the valley, and the annual recogida (harvest) occupies the hands of vast numbers of residents. The reasons the valley is globally renowned are twofold: first, it has historically been the primary source of cherries in Spain, and the valley exports them to the rest of the country and Europe (it is possible to order online and have them delivered within 24 hours to anywhere on the peninsula). This, though, has ceased to be the case as other production areas have sprung up, notably in Castellón in eastern Spain and in Alicante’s Vall de Gallinera.
Jerte cherries are coveted for their excellence, and although the valley now accounts for only 20 percent of national production – compared to 80 percent in recent memory – the dominación de origin (guarantee of origin certificate) of Jerte is for Spanish consumers as important as jamón Ibérico is to meat or Rioja and Ribero del Duero are to wine.

The second, and that which distinguishes the valley in agricultural circles, is the prominence of one particular strain of cherry – the picota – which is indigenous to Jerte and does not occur naturally anywhere else on earth. There are four varieties of picota cherry, which is unique on account of being harvested from the tree stemless: Pico Colorado, Pico Negro, Pico Limón Negro and Ambrunés. The latter is commonly referred to as the “queen of cherries”. The Negro varieties earn their epithet by their dark, almost crimson, hue. The Colorado is the most versatile – it can last for up to a week in a refrigerator, something few varieties are able to withstand. Locally produced liqueurs and preserves derived from the cherry abound, and cherries preserved in aguardiente keep aficionados in stock when the brief fresh natural stock is spent.

Cherries are swift in reaching fruition after the annual bloom. The recogida takes place from the beginning of May and can last until the end of July. According to figures from the Association of Cooperatives of the Valle del Jerte, when the final cherry had been plucked last year, the tiny valley – around 372 square kilometres - had produced 12 million kilograms of fruit. As a comparison, according to figures from a study backed by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, the entire average output from Australia between 2001 and 2005 was 7 million metric tonnes per year.

Spain faces increasing competition from international competitors – notably Italy – and production is so widespread that even in Argentina’s South Patagonia region, land set aside for cherry production has more than tripled in the last ten years. Spanish growers launched a 1997 campaign to promote the Picota variety in England, and they now feature prominently on supermarket shelves all over the country. However, in a sad indictment upon the trend of mass-production and market overload, the Valle del Jerte is increasingly reliant on tourism as an alternative source of income as a once-exclusive reserve of the cherry industry continues to be eaten away by insatiable global demand.
Stalkless Picota cherries are in season from mid-June until the end of July. These unique fresh cherries are widely available in the UK – only at this time of year. They are grown by family producers in the Jerte Valley in the west of Spain and protected by denomination of origin status. The cherries mature for up to twice as long as other. During this process, a protective skin forms between the fruit and its stalk, which then detaches naturally during harvesting. Sweet Picota cherries are an excellent source of potassium and contain almost no sodium, making them a good snack for people with high blood pressure or heart disease. 1 handful of cherries (around 14 cherries) gives you one portion of your 5-a-day
 
For more information about the picota cherry visit www.foodsfromspain.co.uk
3 Comments | Add a comment

COMMENTS

Chris Dixon
France
1
This article makes me want to go there now.
Catherine Millar
2
'O my god gorgeous!'
jill little
England
3
These are the best cherries ever. Eagerly awaiting the 2016 crop.

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