The Victorian cherry season has just begun with farmers predicting a bumper year. "We're up and away," says CherryHill Orchards' director Stephen Riseborough. "It's been raining through the winter, the dams are full and it's looking really good."
Last year's season was less bountiful. "The drought was tough for everyone and cherries are no exception. They don't like it too dry," says Mr Riseborough. He's hoping kind weather continues throughout harvest, which peaks in December, with crops continuing to ripen into February.
"Cherries like gentle weather for harvesting, without extremes of heat or too much rain," he says. "If we get rain, we put in helicopters and fans to dry the fruit to stop it splitting."
CherryHill has farms in Cobram, the Goulburn Valley, Tolmie in the High Country and Wandin East in the Yarra Valley, with 30 different cherry varieties ripening in succession. The first to come in are Merchant, a medium cherry with dark red skin and golden-red flesh. Around Christmas time, larger cherries such as Regina with firm red flesh and juicier Sweet Georgia are more common.
Pricing is very dynamic, with export markets important. "We love selling into China," says Mr Riseborough. "The Chinese like Australian cherries so we are hopeful we can do good business there."
He's also hopeful of a strong year for pick-your-own cherries, with his family's Wandin East property part of a nine-farm Cherry Trail that spans the Yarra Valley, Upper Goulburn Valley, Macedon Ranges and Mornington Peninsula.
"It's always popular but I expect demand to be huge this year, especially as Melbourne comes back to the regions," he says. "We have capped ticket numbers and put extra cleaning and distancing measures in place but it's already very safe. We're outdoors and the farms are massive." For those who don't do farmgate, cherries can also be home-delivered.
Cherries always mean summer but Mr Riseborough believes they'll have extra resonance this year.
"They signal something new and fresh which makes them even more special with lockdown," he says. "I think Victorians are upbeat and Victoria is a great place to be. Cherries are a reflection of that. They're part of that good feeling that we are all getting back to living."
Select firm, bright, shiny cherries.
Store in a loose bag or airtight container in the fridge and eat within four days.
Chef Philippa Sibley is a huge fan. "Cherry season is romantic," she says. She loves eating cherries both fresh and cooked. Ms Sibley celebrated the reopening of city restaurant The European by making a Black Forest roulade.
"I pop the stones from the cherries by hand so they are really juicy and flambe them in cherry brandy," she says. "It's retro and delicious." She's also planning a cherry baklava for her food delivery menu, PSTake3. "Cherries and pistachios are a perfect marriage," she says.
Cherries also work well with savoury dishes. "Smash up a load of cherries, cover in good red wine vinegar and they're amazing with duck," says Ms Sibley. Roast pork can be served with a warm chutney. "You roast apples, cherries, cinnamon, sugar and vinegar to make a hot, chunky pickle," she says.
Christmas and cherries go together like prawns and a barbie. "We always have a massive bowl of cherries on the table for Christmas," says Ms Sibley. "You just have to. We always have a 'tie the stalk in a knot in your mouth' race too. I am a champion now, but it took me a couple of kilos to work out how to do it."