For many in Australia, a surefire way to tell the festive season has started is by the arrival of cherry season. Depending on the region, cherry harvests normally run from mid-November to as late as the end of February; this year, however, thanks to a record-breakingly wet and cold November, the season has been delayed.
Barisha Batinich, the New South Wales representative of Cherry Growers Australia, said he only began harvesting two or three days into December, two to three weeks later than usual.
“It’s a very late season for us, and across all the growing districts as well; every area is experiencing slow-ripening cherries … It’s caught some of our early areas off guard a bit, because we’re usually 60% through my whole farm at this stage, and really I’m only just 10% of the way at the moment.”
Batinich, who runs Valley Fresh Cherries and Stone Fruits, says the delayed harvest likely means he will be picking and selling cherries until the very end of December, and possibly into the new year.
“Other areas may not have the bulk of cherries ready before Christmas, and their main harvest might begin in the new year. So we’re lucky in that sense that there will be cherries for Christmas – weather depending, of course.”
Last weekend saw Young, the “cherry capital of Australia”, put on their annual cherry festival. While pandemic precautions meant a scaled-back program, Young’s tradition of crowning a cherry queen and charity queen was kept alive.
This year, Trudi Summerfield and Ashlenn Bannister were respectively crowned cherry queen and charity queen. In other years, there was also a cherry king, but the festival did not receive any entrants for the title this year.
Cherry queen hopefuls are evaluated on their charity fundraising efforts, participation in community events, and a portfolio about themselves. Each entrant runs a number of events – raffles, morning teas and trivia nights – to work towards their goal.
“I was born in Young so I’ve always attended all the festivals,” Summerfield says. “Just the buzz in the community in the weeks leading up to it, and the visitors we get that pick the cherries for us and help out – it’s just a real community thing and everyone’s just really happy and smiley.”
Bannister, whose title was awarded after she raised more than $14,000 for motor neurone disease research, says the community support despite uncertainty and changing restrictions was key to their efforts.
“I think, through the year that we’ve had, we’ve all managed to do quite well. We were all quite lucky – we had to go into lockdown twice once we started fundraising. Even with that and all the restrictions we were all quite lucky to get events held and have the community still be as involved as they were.”
Batinich’s farm also lent a hand, sponsoring the coronation dinner. “Cherry queens have been around for a long, long time, and we needed to support them to get them hopefully through to next year, where we’re all hoping things get back to normal,” he said.
I just like to eat them, normally – off the tree.
Trudi Summerfield, cherry queen
A fourth-generation cherry grower, Batinich says damage and unpredictability from the weather, buyers expecting cherry supplies and Covid have made this season one of the hardest he’s experienced. Nonetheless, he is looking forward to his harvests of the Lapins, Simone and Regina varieties: “The quality of the later-season fruit is exceptional.”
Summerfield says she is excited for her role as an ambassador for Young, and will continue working with her chosen charity, PCYC Young. Her favourite way to enjoy cherries? “I just like to eat them, normally – off the tree.”
Bannister is in full agreement: “You can’t go wrong with fresh cherries this time of year. I’d say the best way to eat them is straight from the box.”
Five ways with cherries
A hard-to-beat, classic cherry dessert, Felicity Cloake’s version macerates the cherries in kirsch and sugar to layer in the stone fruit’s aroma. Pit the cherries if you like, or don’t – leaving the pits in will result in a more intense flavour.
Roasting fresh cherries intensifies their sweetness, a perfect foil to nutty black rice, fresh herbs and zippy vinegar and lemon. This summery salad would make a great addition to a holiday lunch or dinner spread.
Roast chicken thighs in the oven, or use leftover roast chicken for this dish. If you’re using leftover chicken, the addition of lentils means it’s robust enough to make a quick weeknight dinner.
Just three ingredients are needed for this sorbet: fruit is stewed with sugar in wine (or juice for a booze-free version), then blended to a puree and churned into sorbet. While it might seem a little appliance-heavy, Ray also includes a method for those who don’t own an ice-cream machine.
Cooked cherries are easier to pit than fresh ones; Miers stews them in a little Cointreau, citrus and spices, then spoons them into golden filo shells filled with a silky creme patissiere.