Along the whole length of the mountain chain of the Pyrenees the cherry orchards flourish in the lower foothills, where the alluvial soil and sheltered micro climate offer the perfect growing conditions. From Ceret in Languedoc Roussillon to Itxassou in the Pays Basque cherries are big business. Ceret is famed in particular for the Burlat variety which was introduced by Joseph Guitard in 1952, it has a firm flesh which is good for preservation and transportation and used mainly in savoury dishes such as Stuffed Pintade or Stuffed Goose, Similarly it can be pressed and rolled into a Pork Roti.
Through little hamlets like Itxassou (famous for its dark cherry jam) and Cambo les Bains (where the Dépardieu movie Cyrano de Bergerac was filmed), the cherry trees that were once close to extinction are now blooming again. In 1994 a group of farmers moved to protect and re-establish the cherries – which are centred mainly around Itxassou.
Itxassou specialises in local cultivars; Bigorre and Xapata for eating, Peloa for syrups and Beltxa for jam and compotes. The trees are planted on very steep terrain and harvest gathering is manual, long and laborious. There are currently over 4000 cherry trees and they hope to reach up the mountains to 6000 feet in 10 years time.
Most of these species are indigenous:
A yellow orange cherry and more acidic than most is sold mainly fresh as its juice is very clear and not popular for jam making as it makes a clear/brown jam.
Dark red if allowed to mature and takes its name from its sheath. These are difficult to transport because they are rather soft but their juice is colourful - almost black. It is used to produce the famous black cherry jam.
The rare famous jam making cherry known as the Black Basque – it only grows in this part of the world. It has tiny fruits and its jam is often paired with Sheep's Cheese or as a filling for Gâteau Basque. Black cherries appeared along the trails Itxassou from the 12th century onwards and in the 19th century cherry wood fuelled the fires of Bayonne. The "red gold" was sold in the markets around, in Cambo les Bains to the Pas de Roland and along the road from Bayonne to St. Jean Pied de Port.
The origin of the culture of growing cherries stretches back through the centuries and strangely enough the Patron Saint of the village is named Saint Fructueux (Fructuosus in Latin). Fructus translates as fruit from Latin! He was Bishop of Tarragona and was arrested during the persecutions of Christians under the Roman Emperor Valerian (reigned 253 – 260) along with his two Deacons, Saint Augurius and Saint Eulogius. They were burned at the stake at the local amphitheatre in Tarragona in 259. Legend has it that as they burned their ropes charred away freeing them and they held out their arms to resemble Christ's crucifixion on the cross.
Another local legend is that Roland (or Orlando - the son of Charlemagne's sister) carved a great hole in the mountainside along the valley of the River Nive to get to Roncesvalles, with his legendary sword Durendal that had once belonged to the Trojan hero Hector.
Cherries are so important to the region that Cherry Festivals are held – usually in late May-early June. In Itxassou the festival is quite literally a moveable feast as the date is set 50 days after the first blossoms. The festivals involve stone spitting competitions, music and dancing in the streets. Thousands of visitors are welcomed for the festivals and the Grande Marche de la Cerise sells tonnes of cherries each day.