The start of the US Northwest cherry season in the UK has got underway in style with a beautiful and buzzing tasting reception held last night (25 July) in London. Hosted by Lewis Lukens, the Chargé d’Affaires of the Embassy of the United States of America, and celebrated at his residence, the special event was organised by USA Northwest Cherry Growers in collaboration with Marks & Spencer (M&S), the Washington State Fruit Commission and Pink Sky PR.
Attended by food bloggers, writers, critics and editors, the first-ever UK evening reception for US Northwest cherries showcased the sweetness and versatility of yellow Rainier cherries though five different dishes and two desserts created and presented by the head chef at the US Embassy.
“This is the first time we’ve held an event like this in the UK,” George Smith of USA Northwest Cherry Growers tells Produce Business UK.
“There’s a suspicion among UK consumers who tend to buy red cherries that yellow Rainiers are not ripe. But once they taste the variety they are converted as they realise Rainiers are sweeter and very tasty. It’s an educational process.”
Cherries also offer a number of medicinal benefits, according to Smith. “In fact, they’re a superfood,” he explains. “They’re high in fibre, vitamin C and antioxidants, as well as being fat-free, cholesterol-free and having a low glycemic index.”
Smith says the majority of the food writers in attendance had never tried Rainier cherries, while those that had were not aware of their versatility.
“You wouldn’t necessarily think to pair Rainiers with the ingredients used in the recipes we developed. It comes down to getting the balance of sugars and acids right. It took two months of trialling and sampling before we decided on the menu for last night.”
Setting the scene for the evening, the US Ambassador’s garden was decorated with pergolas that were adorned with flowers and blossoms. Guests enjoyed a seven-course taster menu, along with cherry margaritas.
In season from mid-June through August, the US Embassy’s chef was keen to serve the Rainier cherries as natural as possible; describing the fruit as being in “perfect condition”.
The menu featured herb-coated goats cheese, cherry chutney and cherry foccacia; BBQ mackerel with soused Rainier cherries, cider vinaigrette and émincé of fennel; roast tarragon chicken ballotine, wilted kale and cherry jus; followed by a cherry mousse and cherry sorbet in addition to a summer sherry and cherry trifle.
“It was a fantastic night, with a great buzz and it may well turn into an annual event,” reveals Smith.
“We’ve had really good feedback and already this morning we’re getting traction on social media. All the foodies and bloggers took photos which they shared via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the hashtag #rainiercherry. One blogger even recorded a video of the evening.”
The US Northwest cherry industry has carried out a number of different marketing activities in the UK over the years.
In addition to the tasting reception, co-organised by M&S – the largest UK retailer of Rainier cherries – the focus of promotions this season will be on communicating to millennials.
Competitions will be held with UK retailers Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and the Co-operative.
“Millennials are the consumers of the future and they do most of their shopping on their phones or tablets, so if we’re going to drive additional cherry sales it has to be done through social media,” Smith points out.
“With Sainsbury’s we are developing online and on-pack activities, including a competition to win the Sainsbury’s magic bullet blender.
“Through the Co-operative we are giving away Fitbit watches via a consumer competition.”
The UK wholesale market, which remains an important avenue for US Northwest cherry exports, will also see promotional activity.
“There are about 90 different wholesalers around the country that buy US Northwest cherries,” George adds. “So we’re working with a couple of importers to offer the best wholesale performers a Fitbit watch.”
US Northwest cherries will be arriving in Britain later this year as planting expands at a higher elevation and with late varieties, which dovetail the end of English cherry supplies.
Rainiers are available now, and the first red cherry varieties arrived for UK wholesalers just this morning (Wednesday 26 July). Volume is set to pick up during the remainder of July and into August.
So far, all the reports point towards a very good crop for 2017, with supply for UK receivers going late, into early September.
“We’ve got a late harvest with lots of fruit and good quality,” confirms Smith. “Assuming we have a good spring and pollination, and no frost or rain events during the growing season, the UK remains a viable and loyal market for Northwest Cherry Growers.
“Sizing is nice and sugar levels are good. If you look at the Rainiers on M&S shelves right now they are a good indication of what’s to come.”
Volume-wise, Smith says UK-export numbers will not be clear until October.
In a good year, he says the UK receives around 400,000 cases, but when exchange rates are unfavourable that can reduce to 250,000 cases. The industry will not export to the UK during a bad weather year.
Starting with Rainiers, the UK can expect to receive mid- to late-season varieties, including Lapin, Bing, Skeena, Sweetheart and Regina. So far, the crop is looking equally good across all varieties.
In total this season the US Northwest cherry industry expects to harvest around 22 million cases. At the halfway point growers have shipped 14.7m cases so far in 2017.