Turning the corner in May on the country roads between Conversano and Turi, this year it was practically impossible not to come across an expanse of red. More than in previous years, the trees carried cherries as if they were raining. Thanks to the favorable climatic conditions, the cherry-growing campaign was one of the richest in recent years. The fruits are many and, above all, good. Having recently returned to live in my land, I decided that I could no longer limit myself to having a superficial knowledge of the fruit that here, for years, we have called “red gold”, in memory of the times when it was sold at high prices and represented a large part of the GDP of the area.
For this reason, I asked my childhood friend Fabrizio – a graduate in “Food Science and Techniques” and Quality Manager in one of the largest cherry exporters in the area – to take me for a ride in his small family field, to tell me all the secrets of cherries, learning to recognize and pick them.
I see Fabrizio on a Sunday morning, very early, at least by my standards; traumatic, but the only good strategy for those who will spend many hours in a sunny field picking cherries. Fabrizio’s biological clock has been set correctly for several years. In fact, even if his family does not live on agriculture, Fabrizio has been growing cherries from the first years of his life. Actually, now that I think about it, I think I am among the few people from Conversano who do not have a small strip of land dedicated to cherries. As we reach his camp, Fabrizio tells me that “when I was a child, my father threw me barefoot in the countryside so as not to make me cry. I would come back dirty but so I would stop crying. From middle school, I remember that I skipped school every now and then to go and pick cherries … “
The day is sunny, but also windy, fortunately. It is just the ideal day to lend a hand to Fabrizio and his dad Gianni to pick Bigarreau cherries, the first variety that I present to you. A round cherry, with a short peduncle and a soft texture, is harvested in the first twenty days of May. It is the less valuable variety, but very abundant, so much so that when it is overripe or a little bruised it is used for jams (such as the one my grandmother prepares for her batters).Fabrizio shows me how to pick them: you have to grab the fruit and remove it by pulling it towards the other, so as not to compromise the attachment with the branch and frustrate the harvests of the following years. It is not difficult, and I begin to quickly fill my senale (or s’nèl, in the local dialect) – the traditional apron that is used in Conversano (while in Turi the bucket is mainly used, don’t ask me why the difference). I think I’m a pro, but Fabrizio and his dad are at least twice as fast. However, I am satisfied with myself, and between one cherry and the next, quite a few end up straight in my stomach.
A few steps further, Fabrizio’s father is picking the first cherries of the Giorgia variety, characterized by a longer stalk and a harder texture. We are used to thinking that a good cherry is a soft one, but in reality it is the firmer one that is more valuable. Let’s be clear: Bigarreau is very good, but the real Queen here is the Ferrovia cherry, which in fact is the hardest and largest. The one with an intense red color, the shape of a heart, and a dot “on the butt”.
It’s kind of a myth here: everyone admires it and wants it, for its sweet taste and generous size. One leads to another as if they were taralli. This cherry is a real heritage of this strip of Puglia, an ideal quadrilateral that includes Conversano, Turi, Sammichele and Casamassima. For years there has been talk of making it PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), but – as often happens in southern Italy – it is difficult to bring about an agreement and complete the task. The Ferrovia cherry is a jewel to protect, especially now that climate change is truly affecting crops and troubling farmers. Fabrizio explained to me how, by now, thunderstorms or sudden frosts that jeopardize an entire season are no longer so infrequent. This year, however, everything went well and the fruits on the trees are practically perfect, without the use of many pesticides. At the end of May, the Ferrovia is perfectly ripe, ready to be harvested and exported abroad, especially to France and Germany, where it battles with other varieties from Northern Italy and Greece. And it wins easy, I assure you.
But why is it called “Ferrovia” (“railway”)? The exact origin is not clear, but I can tell you the story that is told in these parts: the legend was born in the 1930s when the citizens of Sammichele collect the delicious fruits of a cherry tree near a railway tollbooth of the Ferrovie del Sud Est. From there, by detaching the twigs and planting them elsewhere, the “railway” had also spread to the surrounding villages, becoming its symbolic fruit. A fruit so important that a farmer would be able to recognize it even just by the sound it makes when it is placed in a box.
A fruit that, if you want some advice, you should come and try directly in Puglia, at the beginning of June. But be careful not to detach it from a tree on the street: it would be like stealing a diamond from a jewelry shop!