In the history of strawberries, Cambridge has had a major role in their breeding. Hence the existence of 14 varieties with the prefix “Cambridge” to their name. You have probably heard of Cambridge Favourite, but there were also Vigour, Prizewinner, Rival, Epicure, Aristocrat, Premier - and the list rolls on. Plant breeding has rolled on too, (largely in response to pests and diseases) and you will not find any of the older Cambridge breeds still being grown locally this year, (though watch out for them next year.) But if you look, there is still quite a choice of varieties available.
Farmers want as long a sequence of fruit as possible, so choose from early, mid, late season and ever-bearer varieties, to stretch out the season. Obviously they are keen on disease resistance too. But the priorities change according to the destination of the strawberries – supermarket as against direct sale to the public.
Supermarkets are hell-bent on long shelf life (on otherwords rather dry textured, under-ripe fruit), regularity of shape and size, and fruit which are orangey red. (Allegedly people perceive red strawberries as being stale/ over the hill/ going off. Which is why Cambridge Late Pine was reckoned to be non-commercial, and why Malwina has the same reputation. Quite one of life’s mysteries.) Flavour is not the main consideration for the supermarkets, but it comes higher up the list for farmers selling at their gates. Thank Heavens.
There are at least 21 varieties of strawberry being grown locally for gate sales, plus more which are already in the ground but won’t be cropping until next year. So there is a real opportunity to do a bit of comparative tasting and to find which varieties are particularly to your taste, and whether you reckon open field or tunnel grown fruit are better.
The shrinking number of farms that do PYO (Pick Your Own) is a great sadness, but I can quite see that unrestrained greed (as against judicious sampling), damage to the plants, health and safety considerations, and the need to provide extensive parking, all mean it can be tricky and unattractive. But it is a lovely thing to do with children on a fine afternoon, and they learn something about where food comes from.
There are still 5 farms hereabouts that do PYO strawberries, though they mostly have ready-picked fruit too. Alphabetically they are:
Bury Lane Farm Shop, on the A10 Melbourn bypass, where the season has started. They have Elsanta, plus some Evie 2, grown in the open air, on waist high tables. It is worth going inside – they have an amazing, mini-Harrods style food hall.
Chaplin’s Farm Shop, on Babraham Rd, Fulbourn, has a small area of field grown strawberries – Albion, Elsanta, Darselect and Honeoye – which they expect to start cropping from June 15th-ish.
Lidgate Farm, Prickwillow Rd, Isleham is now “on full pull”, and John Quince thinks this may be one of the biggest and best crops he has had. His field grown strawberries include Christine, Lucy and Marshmello. There are some ready-picked fruit at weekends.
Pidley boasts 2 PYO farms, practically opposite each other on the Somersham Rd. Alan Noble at South View Farm started his season 2 weeks ago. His field grown varieties are Alice, Florence, Honeoye, Sonata and a few Darselect.
On the other side of the road, Michael Upchurch at Park Farm, has the biggest collection of strawberry varieties amongst the PYO farms, and has already been going for 2 weeks. He grows Alice, Amelia, Christine, Delia, Florence, Honeoye, Korona, Sweetheart, Symphony and, for the freezer, Totem. Not only does he encourage families with well-behaved children to come picking, but on Saturday afternoons there are cream teas in the marquee, served with their own, home-made jam. What could be better?
Oxholme Farm at Hilton has been producing ready-picked Elsanta from the polytunnels for the last three weeks. Having realised that people seem increasingly out of touch with the seasons and what produce to expect when, the Coopers now sent out bulletins about which crops are coming available, to everyone who leaves their email address on the farm’s web site.
Hacker’s Farm, on the A14, between the Crematorium and Tesco, is now back in strawberry production ( Summer 2008 was a disaster, when the entire crop was lost to mildew and everything was grubbed out.) To me, Hackers have always had the very best ready-picked strawberries of all – firm, fat, glossy, no bird pecks or decay, truly ripe and with hulls which tweak out cleanly. The sort of quality you can usually only get by picking your own. Their open field varieties are Christine, Elegance, Eros, Fenella and Korona.
Sunclose Farm, in Butt Lane, Milton, now only does ready-picked fruit, grown in coir, in polytunnels. Their varieties are Elsanta, Eve’s Delight.
Sonata and Sweet Eve. They sell the mis-shapes for jam, at half price.
And the very best strawberries of all? The ones you grow yourself – not only because of the freshness and quality (and the indefinable sense of delight in producing your own), but also because you can grow wonderful varieties which you cannot buy. You can go for taste above all, and ignore commercial viability. Try Cambridge Favourite or Royal Sovereign or the new Malwina. Top of my list is Mara des Bois, which has the wonderful, intense flavour of the alpine strawberry, but a rather better size. The plants are obtainable from specialist nurseries, and well worth the effort.
Finally, Sunday June 17th sees Farm Sunday, organised by LEAF – Linking Environment and Farming – which is an open day on a whole number of local farms. Some of the local farms taking part are Burwash Manor at Barton, Manor Farm at Harlton, College Farm at Duxford, and the College of West Anglia at Milton. Or you could combine seeing the rare breed pigs (Oxford Sandy and Blacks, British Lops and Gloucester Old Spots) and other delights at Cambria Farm, Isleham, and then go for a spot of strawberry picking at Lidgate Farm in the same villege.