Seasonal Superheroes: W&D Riccini and the Kent Cherry Co.
For centuries Kent has been celebrated for growing Britain’s fruit. The county’s sprawling orchards have long borne juicy crops upon their branches to feed a nation, but without the growers that work through all weathers and face much adversity, the county would not be the fruit-growing triumph it is today. By Olivia Riccini
Legend has it that Henry VIII first crowned Kent with the title, the ‘Garden of England’. After he was handed a bowl of ripe red cherries from the Belgian fields of Flanders, this infamous King ordered Britain’s first cherry orchard tp be planted in Teynham near Faversham. Over 500 years later, the fruit growing industry has seen an evolution of growth, progress and change with plenty of twists, turns and setbacks along the way. Although much has changed in the five centuries since Kent was first recognised as the country’s capital for fruit, one steadfast element has remained – Kent still holds the title ‘Garden of England’ and countries across the globe continue to look to the county for leadership and expertise when it comes to growing bountiful crops ripe with flavour and high in quality.
A practice that has been passed down through generations, the art of fruit growing has evolved alongside the genetic varieties we eat today; but with this evolution the need to stay ahead of trends in both growing technique and market popularity has become evermore the challenge to today’s growers. Although still the fruit growing capital of the UK, Kent has seen many of its smaller family-run fruit farms get swallowed up by bigger industrial players, or turn their hand to something new aside from fruit. For one Kent growing family that has been supplying Britain’s fruit for over 100 years, which also happens to be my very own, this has been far from the case.
Our story starts in the mud of Passendale’s trenches during WWI, the same Belgian earth that once grew those cherries eaten by Henry VIII some 400 years before. Today, I wonder whether my great-grandfather made this link before he came to grow fruit of his own; I more often wonder how he felt when he breathed in the clean Kentish air that doctors prescribed his lungs after he survived the gas attack that unintentionally saved his life and whether he felt guilt, grief or gratitude on exhalation. ‘It is something we will never know’, says his daughter, now my grandmother, who witnessed his unbreakable strength throughout the ‘dig for victory’ years that followed, amidst the threat of Nazi invasion and times so uncertain we can now no longer fathom. After his evacuation from the horrors of World War I, my great-grandfather, William Wallis, a Cornishman, travelled by ship to Argentina where he learned to grow fruit. Upon his return to British shores, he knew that there was no place better than Kent to start growing his own and thus, the history books of my family were written. His technique and practice was passed down through two generations, and like the industry itself, morphed and evolved with time, knowledge and research.
Since 1921, the year that William Wallis purchased his first farm on the outskirts of Canterbury, our farms have not only grown in size but have also grown many of Kent’s delectables over those 100 years. Victoria plums, greengages, raspberries, apples of all kinds, strawberries, pears and most recently, cherries, have all been planted and picked upon this fertile soil to feed the nation. Originally, it was Kent’s close proximity to London that was yet another appealing benefit to this county and its fruit-growing appeal. With direct train links to London’s famous markets that included both Borough and Covent Garden, supplying the nation from Kent was straightforward for times that relied so heavily on rail. Today, the farms, run by William Wallis’ grandchildren William and David Riccini, supply Britain’s supermarkets with fruit – now a much larger operation than the traditional produce markets of the 20th century. When asking my father, David Riccini, the reason behind his, and his brother and business partner William’s success, he told me that their ‘early transition away from traditional varieties’ and continual reinvestment into young orchards while keeping ahead of variety trends, has been key. Even if that means planting up new orchards more regularly, new varieties are always evolving and this is intricately linked to flavour, quality, and ultimately consumer experience and satisfaction. ‘I knew I wanted to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps and have always had a natural aptitude for understanding science, which is crucial for successful fruit growing’ says David. ‘After studying at Writtle Agricultural College, I began to develop my own business strategies allowing me to take the family business into the 21st century and keep up with the modern challenges of fruit farming.’
My uncle, William Riccini, reminds me that ‘Continually monitoring nutrient levels, attention to detail and good husbandry technique,’ is also important, as is the ‘recruitment of good, enthusiastic staff that must be looked after well.’ When it comes to staff, the industry has also seen a myriad of changes; originally starting out with village locals and even children to pick the crops, Kent’s famous coalfield provided a plentiful selection of hard-working and eager recruits that were collected in a double-decker East Kent bus and delivered to the orchards for an honest day’s work. Today the vacancies of fruit picking jobs are predominantly filled by determined Eastern Europeans, a transitional change that is just one of many our farm has witnessed over those 100 years. It is not only the outside influences of the industry that have affected the evolution of the farm but also several changes in the focus of the business; changes which have brought about accolades that include providing Wimbledon’s strawberries during the 1980s and brewing award-winning cider throughout the 1990s, that was even a staple part of Fortnum and Mason’s famous hamper.
Today, aside from supplying supermarkets on a large scale and sharing their expertise through consultancy work, William and David have continued to acknowledge the importance of supplying locally and have embraced the demand for fruit from the local community and its retailers. This summer saw the start of Kent Cherry Co. a branch of W&D Riccini that is committed to supplying Kent-based restaurants and artisan food outlets with the highest quality Kentish fruit, handpicked and carefully selected straight from the branch. Throughout the month of July, the Kent Cherry Co. sold cherries from stalls in Whitstable Harbour and Bekesbourne, a more traditional way of selling fruit directly from the grower to the consumer, which allows for optimum freshness and taste.
Find Kent Cherry Co. on Instagram: @kentcherryco