Cherry Picking

With the mountain range of the Serra da Estrela as a backdrop to the north, the sweeping valleys and fertile lands of the truly beautiful Fundão region lie in the heart of Portugal. This is a land of historic stone villages, sheep grazing in fields, wild boars roaming free and the delightful sound of bird song. 

It is a place worth visiting at any time of the year, but early springtime brings coachloads of visitors from around the country to witness what the region is famous for: the annual display of cherry trees in bloom. It is simply wonderful. However, after just a couple of weeks, the show is over and the fruit starts to develop and ripen. Now the land is ready for the next invasion, the fruit pickers. It’s May and it’s harvest time.

For many of the locals, this is the most important time of year for their income, not only from picking the cherries but also from the making of preserves, pickles, liqueurs and a whole range of other products to sell in markets across the country, in local village stores and to trade with their neighbours. Honey is another delight to add to the list, as many of the farmers keep their own bees with hives that are moved around the land to ensure maximum pollination. 

Then there are the commercial growers with thousands of hectares of land that come together to form the county’s largest cherry-growing region, generating millions of euros into the region’s economy. So why does this rural industry flourish in this particular area?

The introduction of the cherry tree to the Fundãois not established, but it seems the species is not native to Portugal and originally came here from the east. According to one horticultural website, like most temperate-latitude trees, cherry trees require a certain number of chilling hours each year to break dormancy to bloom and produce fruit. I can’t help but smile at the description “chilling hours”, because, when I was visiting the region in March, the word I would have used to describe the temperature was “freezing”… However, because of this cold-weather requirement, no members of the genus Prunus can grow in tropical climates.

I recently caught up with a friend who is currently working on one of the plantations. As we talked about his days of working in the fields, some interesting reflections on the classic “cherry picking” phrase came to light. He told me the cherry pickers always start at the top of the tree, where most of the better clutches of fruit are found, and work down to the lower level. The main objective is only to pick the fruit that is ready now and in the best condition, and leave the rest for when the next team comes through in a few days. 

We can all think of examples of “cherry picking” in life: instances when someone selects the very best of something – or the easiest option – for themselves while leaving others with inferior items, or at a disadvantage. 

Fortunately, the strict regulations implemented by the cherry producers, combined with a history of consistent quality control, means the cherries from the Fundão region are as good as they get. Cereja do Fundão has been successfully promoted as a brand for the region and the annual Cherry Festival is, dare I say, “the cherry on the cake”. At the beginning of June, the third invasion of visitors finds its way to enjoy the gastronomic delights of the fruit. It is also good to note that a fair-trade policy means that the producers receive the value paid by the customers.

Another interesting aspect of the fruit is the claims of its anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. Research is underway to give credibility to such claims and it will be interesting to see what kind of wonder drugs will come to light from the humble cherry in the future.

All I can say is thank you very much to the traveller from the east who planted the first trees over here – springtime in this part of the country would not be the same without them. I’m sure that the bees would agree.

Photos @ Carlos Tidy


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