If you were to be offered a ruby red fruit that reinforces your immune system, helps you sleep, is full of nutrients, an excellent antioxidant, has hardly any calories, is one of nature’s top internal cleansers – especially for the kidneys – rich in magnesium and copper, so it’s good for anaemia and rheumatics, chock full of amino acids, serotonin and melatonin, so it supposedly helps to maintain a youthful appearance, despite it being 85% water, you might well think that whoever is offering it is a practised snake oil seller with a good line in sales chat. But such a fruit does exist – the simple, wholesome cherry.

I wind my way up the Valle del Jerte in Extremadura, home to the Picota, the small, luscious cherry that only grows in this region. In March the trees covering the hillsides are covered in fluffy pink and white blossom, looking as dainty as a Spring bride. Between March and May the fruit appears and ripens, its colour ranging from pale red to an almost deep purple, depending on the variety. From the end of May until the end of July it will be picked, and within a few hours find itself on tables all over Europe.

The cherry was brought to Spain from Asia Minor by the Romans, as were so many agricultural products, and flourished because of the fertile Spanish soil. Records show that cherries were grown in the Jerte valley from at least the 14th century, and by the 19th they were recognised as the best in Spain, when they began to appear at the banquets of the Spanish Court. By then the fruit crop had become the most important economy of the villages of the Valle del Jerte, and narrow terraces layered the mountainsides of the Sierras de San Bernabé, de Tormantos, de Candelario and the Montes Tras la Sierra. It is this terracing, with its different temperatures and perspectives, that allows for the long harvesting time and the wide variety of cherries grown here, making the Valle del Jerte is the largest area devoted to cherry growing in the whole of Europe.

Sorting cherries Valle del Jerte, Etremadura

Picking cherries Valle del Jerte, EtremaduraThere are over one hundred varieties of cherry, but it is the native varieties of Ambrunés, Pico Limon Negro, Pico Negro and Pico Colorado that come under the watchful eye of the Denominación de Origen Cereza del Jerte, the governing body that tightly controls the quality of the fruit, from the tree to the moment in arrives on supermarket shelves. But as the juice trickles down your throat, give a thought to all the work that went to getting it onto your plate.

The fruit is grown on terraces between 400 and 1100 metres, and some of them are so narrow that only a single row of trees can be planted. And there is no room for fancy modern mechanical equipment; ploughing is still often done with the aid of a horse or mule, fertilizer scattered by hand, and pruning done with a pair of hand-held secateurs.

And that’s how the fruit is picked, by hand, laboriously, one by one, as it reaches full ripeness on the tree. (One of the special attributes of the Picota cherry is that it leaves the stalk on the tree, which must save an awful lot of sorting time later.) As the fruit is picked it goes into traditional lattice chestnut wood baskets, to conserve the freshness of the cherries and to prevent bruising. The fruit is first sorted in the orchards one-by-one; in some cases using the traditional way of passing the cherry through a card with a series of holes in it to determine its size and grading, but you need sharp eyes and nimble fingers for the final selection in the packing plant, where only the highest quality is selected from the ten thousand tons of fruit per year that bubbles along in a stream of water past the ladies in mop hats and rubber gloves.

Picota cherries Valle del Jerte, Etremadura

The cherries that finally makes it into the boxes labelled with the seal of the D.O. de Cereza de Jerte are solely for the table, and most of the fifteen million kilos grown annually will go into jars, be made into jams, or pass through the stills of the Agrupación de Cooperativas Valle del Jerte, where it will become aguardiente de cereza, a sharp fruity flavoured clear spirit, similar to kirsch.

As I’m shoDistilling cherries Valle del Jerte, Etremadurawn around the distillery, the forty tanks, each containing twenty-five thousand litres of crushed cherries and water, sit in semi-darkness, silently macerating away to produce the first stage of the licor, vino cereza, which, apparently, smells good, but you wouldn’t want to drink it. From there it passes through the copper stills to drip out at the end of the distillation process as a tongue-burning 70% alcohol. Over the next year it will be carefully blended with water until the final result is a sharp flavoured aperitif of 42%, best served very cold.

Everything produced by the distillery is totally natural, totally devoid of any additives. It’s the additives used in beers, wines and almost any alcoholic drink that are mainly responsible for hangovers – although that’s not to say you won’t totally avoid the ’day after’ feeling if you drink too much of any of the falling down juice – although the cherry and raspberry aguardiente and blackberry liqueur I sampled at the distillery were splendid; the former fiery but with a light, fruity flavour, and the latter rich and creamy and soft on the tongue.

The Valle del Jerte may well be the biggest producer of cherries in Europe, but, with a short season, the growers in the valley have turned to a wide range of other fruit to keep their fertile valley in almost year round production; raspberries, blackberries, currants, bilberries, gooseberries and greengages, pears and plums, all pass through the Cooperativa, some of which will also pass through the distillery to make other flavours of aguardiente. There are also figs, dried in the sun immediately after they are picked and chestnuts, once the main cash crop until a plague destroyed most of the trees in the mid-18th century.

As fruitful as the Valle del Jerte may be, it is also one of those places you visit for its history, walking, peacefulness; the ancient balconied houses, almost tumbling into the streets, the cascading falls of Los Pilones, or the glorious views from the Puerto de Honduras. And its villages are probably some the last places in Spain where the burro is still used as a form of pack animal and transportation. I spend a few minutes chatting with Salvador – Sancho to his friends – who introduces me to his burro, Miguel. A passing neighbour poses for me, sat astride his ancient animal as if he were Hernán Cortes himself, about to embark on his epic voyage to conquer Cuba.


Extremadura, cathedrals to cadillacs