The Picota cherry comes from the Jerté valley, in Extremadura, Spain after being introduced by Arab farmers in the 14th century. Earlier this year I went to visit the valley in a cloud of snowy blossom. Last week I visited the trees while in fruit, drooping with ‘red diamonds’ as they are called locally.
The Picota cherry is different. It is stemless, the stem is left on the tree. Each cherry is ‘tickled’ underneath by the pickers, so it falls into their hands.
Tasted alongside other cultivars of cherry, the Picota is noticeably. sweeter, less acidic, less lemony, and crunchier. The cherry is smaller while the stone is perhaps a little larger. The colour is a dark blood red.
The season is six short weeks, starting at the end of June until the first week of August. So hurry. In Spain they eat them in bowls of ice, as an aperitif with a drink. Picota cherries are sold cheaply in the UK, around a pound a punnet, compared to other cherries, so indulge!
The whole Spain binges on them at this time of the year. We used to take them in a container with ice cubes for a day at the beach ❤️
— Javier Leal (@huveeer) June 28, 2019
The pack house
Looking around a fruit factory or pack house might sound dull, but there is something mesmerising about the scale and repetition. The Picota pack house, a cooperative of farmers, has some of the most modern equipment I’ve ever seen. The technology applied to something so organic is incredible.
The washing machines spit small red bullets through a rapid stream of water. The cherries pass through a machine which photographs each one 100 times per second. There is an X-ray of each cherry, a ghostly chalk line on a screen where each is examined for interior damage. Women in blue hats and gloves pour over the cherries, examining by hand. Then the cherries tumble down a pinball machine contraption. A man stands at the end of the line, measuring cherries, are they 24mm across? Exactly?
Any below par fruit, which frankly looks fine to me, is sold in Spanish markets. The British supermarket is fussy.
The packaging is recyclable wherever possible, but this is directed by the supermarket. British supermarkets are slightly lagging behind in terms of recyclable plastic film. Spanish packaging is fully recyclable.
Most of the farms are owned by families. Above we have Jose, the dad, who is 78, on the left while his son, Miguel Angel Dominguez, 42, controls the farm with his partner Cristina Madruga (pictured above holding a crate of cherries she has just picked). Are you married? I ask.
They laugh: No we are more than married, we have 2 children and a mortgage together.
Miguel adds jokingly: If we married we’d be divorced in a week. Why change things?
The four types of Picota cherries (Ambrunes, Pico limon negro, Pico negro, Pico Colorado) are a protected domaine of origin, meaning they can only be grown in the Jerte Valley above an altitude of 500 metres. The word Picota means ‘peaked’ referring to the slight pointed shape at one end.
One of the main questions for cherry growers is: is it a stone fruit or a berry?
Berry sales have increased exponentially over the last five years and cherries are often used in the same way, as topping for cereal or in smoothies, along with blueberries, strawberries and raspberries.
But botanically a cherry is a drupe: a fleshy fruit that has a central stone containing a seed.
Find out more about the chaotic classification of berries here.
The recipe below is a variation on the usual gazpacho, part of a fantastic cherry tasting menu we had at a rural restaurant, La Garza, in Valdastillas. This is something I can eat/drink/glug by the gallon. In Spain they sell litres of gazpacho for around two euros but in the UK it’s rare to find them in the first place but are expensive when you do. It’s basically a liquidised salad! Refreshing, zingy and your five a day in one.
- 500 g Picota cherries, 700g unpitted
- 1 red pepper, roasted, skinned, seeded
- handful cherry tomatoes
- 150 g breadcrumbs
- 2 cloves garlic
- 150 ml olive oil
- 2 tbsp sherry vinegar
- 1/2 tbsp sea salt
- 100 g goats cheese or feta to garnish
- cucumber diced, to garnish
- chives or red onion to garnish
- Blend all ingredients except the garnishes together
- Chill overnight
- Serve with the cheese/cucumber/chives/cherries to garnish