Ripe for the eating

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The perfect climate causes growers to flock to the Adelaide Hills, writes Nigel Hopkins.

Walk into John Cowling's ancient green-painted packing shed at Willow Glen, on the road to Norton Summit barely 15 minutes' drive from the centre of Adelaide, and it's like going back more than a century. Like going back to 1882 when the property was bought by Cowling's grandfather.

Although the surroundings reek of old-fashioned farming, there are 40 varieties of cherries on the steep hills behind - all of them certified organic, which is no mean achievement given the pests and diseases cherry growers tolerate.

For most growers, the Adelaide Hills provide the perfect environment for premium quality cherries - chilling night-time temperatures, sunny days and high rainfall - making it the centre of South Australia's 900-tonne annual cherry production.

The key factor affecting cherry price is their size and the biggest, tastiest fruit are to be found at the shed door. Prices may be a little higher than in supermarkets, from $12 a kilogram to $20 a kilogram but so is the quality and the freshness.

To make it easier to find the shed doors, growers have produced a Cherry Trail map that shows around 20 cherry orchards in the Adelaide Hills and Willow Glen marks its starting point.

The trail meanders through spectacular countryside as it takes cherry seekers as far afield as Kenton Valley Cherries, where Simon Cornish is the sixth generation of his family to farm in the region. The biggest cherry Cornish has grown was 39 millimetres across, while the average for top-grade export quality cherries is around 30 millimetres.

Many orchards grow more than just cherries. There are figs, raspberries, apples, plums, apricots and all sorts of jams and preserves to be found. Willow Glen makes a richly-flavoured cherry vinegar (from cherry juice, not just an infusion), while the cafe at Kenton Valley Cherries serves a cherry slice that alone is worth the drive. Just beyond Kenton Valley is Torrens Valley Orchards at Gumeracha, the largest cherry growing and packing operation in the state, while dotted along the trail are small pick-your-own places such as Marble Hill Cherries at Ashton and historic orchards such as Bishop's Orchard at Basket Range.

Cherries are very area specific with some Hills areas such as Montacute and Norton Summit the first to market by about two weeks, starting in early November, while Kenton Valley starts picking a few weeks later. Peak production is in December, perfect for Christmas.

Orchard opening times are subject to weather conditions so it is advisable to phone the orchard or check its website before starting out.

The Cherry Trail map is available at most shed doors or the Good Food and Wine Trails site at southaustralia.com.

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