There is something very satisfying about picking fruit; the feeling of abundance, the sun on your shoulders, the smell of the warm strawberries, the occasional fruit slipped into the mouth. But a few years back, pick-your-own seemed to dwindle, with fewer farms offering it. Was it a result of greed - that too many people were guzzling fruit rather than sampling? Or was it because the supermarkets offered one-stop shopping, with apparently lower prices?
But now there seems to be something of a resurgence of interest. John Quince, who grows strawberries at Isleham, thinks the main factor is that people are more aware of food miles, though they may also prefer the taste of properly ripe fruit to chilled examples of fruit bred for a long shelf life. I feel there is an attraction in knowing the farm your food comes from, but also that you pick out your own - choosing the degree of ripeness you fancy, so there are no naughty half white strawbs lurking in the middle of the punnet.
The situation this year
This year has been a punishing one for strawberries, subjected to both cold and damp with all the snow, and then the harsh May frosts which destroyed up to a third of the crop by wrecking the blossom. So the pick your own season has started late for many farms where the strawberries are grown in the open field. Although fruit grown under cover is obviously ready earlier, many people reckon that the taste is never as full and developed as that of a field grown crop. Another contentious point is whether the crop is in the ground or grown in peat bags up on trestles. A crop at waist height is easier to pick, but has the taste been compromised by the growing medium?
Tips for picking
A good tip for picking strawberries is to go when there have been a couple of days of sun, as the sugars in the fruit will be better developed, and anyway the warmth enhances the smell. But a really important tip is to note the different varieties of strawberry - not only the particular taste for your palate, but also which varieties to avoid.
You probably won't come across the horrible Everest nowadays, but do think carefully about Elsanta. Because of its dry, dense texture (excellent shelf life of course) it was described to me by Michael Upchurch as ‘eating like an apple and tasting like cardboard'. But part of the beauty of PYO is that you compare the different varieties and find out which tastes the best to you. The different varieties won't all be available at the same time - as with other fruits, it is more like a relay race, with the different sorts ripening in succession, the team chosen to give as a long a season as possible.
Local farms for Pick Your Own
All of the following farms do PYO strawberries, but of course there is ready-picked fruit too.
John Quince at Lidgate Farm, Prickwillow Rd, Isleham reckons his season will start around June 19th, and offers seven varieties in all: Christine, Alice, Hapil, Cambridge Favourite, Symphony, Judibell and Florence. The hours are Mon - Fri 10.00 - 7.00pm, Sat & Sun 9.00 - 5.00pm.
Michael Upchurch at Park Farm, Somersham Rd, Pidley, also grows seven varieties: Christine, Alice, Korona, Honeoye, Symphony, Florence and (for the freezer) Totem. Next year he will add Amelia and Fenella. The hours are Mon - Sat 8.30 - 7.00pm.
Slap opposite Park Farm on Somersham Rd, there is South View, where Alan Noble grows Honeoye, Darselect, Alice, Florence and Daisy. He chooses the varieties to grow on the grounds of sweetness and flavour, saying that people really want taste, not shelf life. Hours Mon - Sat 8.00 - 7.00pm.
Nearer to Cambridge, Chaplin's Farm Shop in Babraham Rd, Fulbourn offers Albion (an ever-bearer), Darselect and Elsanta. Hours 10.00 - 6.00pm. 7 days a week.
Sunclose Farm in Butt Lane, Milton has Evie, Sweet Eve and Sonata. Hours Mon - Sat 9.00 - 5.30p.m., Sun 9.00 - 4.00pm.
Bury Lane Fruit Farm has only one variety of strawberry for PYO - Elsanta - but the plants are up at waist height for ease of picking. Hours Mon - Sat 9.00 - 5.00pm, Sun 10.30 - 4.00pm. (www.burylanefarmshop.co.uk)
How to serve
Strawberries don't really require much effort in the kitchen, but double cream can rather dull the flavour. An alternative, which is both lighter and flavour intensifying, is boozy cream. Whip double cream until it forms very soft peaks, then add a tablespoon of full milk and whip for a moment. Add another tablespoon of milk and whip again, and repeat the process a few more times, but always with only a small amount of milk each time. Add two teaspoons of kirsch, (which enhances the taste of almost any fruit) or, just for strawberries, two teaspoons of Cointreau, and give a final whisk to the mixture.
Another unusual way to bring out the flavour of the fruit is to pour brittle on the fruit; the heat in the syrup mix brings out the flavour, softens the fruit a little and provides a splendid crunchy contrast. In a small saucepan heat up one part sugar to two parts water. Watch it very carefully as the mixture bubbles up and becomes yellow-ish, and the moment there is a hint if brown in the pan, pour the mix thinly over the strawberries.
Image of cut strawberry by Muffet courtesy of Creative Commons