Strawberries: the silver lining to a cloudy spring

Date:06-06-2013 07:58:07 read:4

Strawberries: the silver lining to a cloudy spring

The long months of dismal weather have finally produced a vintage crop of strawberries

Victoria Moore at Harry Hall’s farm in Godalming: 'These conditions are unprecedented. We’re rewriting the rule book’ Photo: Julian Andrews

Did your thoughts turn to strawberries as the sun – finally – began to shine at the weekend? If so, you were not alone: “Demand really starts cranking up with warm days,” says Laurence Olins, chairman of British Summer Fruits, which represents 85 per cent of our strawberry growers.

And whether you like them doused in double cream, sprinkled with sugar or just as they come, there is a treat in store for strawberry aficionados. After an unusually cold, dismal spring – can anyone remember keeping their winter coat to hand and the central heating on so far into summer? – this year’s strawberries are very late, but nature has an upside to offer: thanks to that weather, it looks as if they will be particularly tasty.

“These conditions are unprecedented,” says Harry Hall, Britain’s biggest strawberry farmer. “We’re at least two, maybe two-and-a-half weeks behind where we were last year. And last year was late. We’re in the land of rewriting the rule book.”

When I visited his farm near Godalming two weeks ago, there was barely a red berry in sight, just tunnel after tunnel of pale green fruit. The problem, says Harry, has not just been the low temperatures. Those controversial polytunnels under which most of the British strawberry crop ripens get quite cosy – as long as the sun shines. But it hasn’t shone – until now, when that long, gentle season is producing an exceptional strawberry vintage.

Marion Regan, a fourth-generation strawberry farmer in Kent, explains: “Because of the harsh weather the plants have grown very slowly. They’ve got good root systems and they’re very strong, and because of all that, the flavour has developed very well. Also the berries themselves have grown slowly, so the flavour is much more complex.”

And more... strawberry-like, instead of those fat berries, grown in a whoosh with lots of water and tasting of sugar and nothing else? “Yes.”

Strawberries are grown, under glass and polytunnel and sometimes in the open air, across swathes of the country, in particular in Kent, Herefordshire, Staffordshire, the Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire borders, east Yorkshire and the east coast of Scotland. A British strawberry needs about 60 days from flowering to picking, and different varieties fruit in different areas at different times, the goal being to ensure a steady and even supply throughout the season.

“It’s remarkable if you compare where we are now to 20 years ago,” says Laurence Olins. “Back then, the strawberry season was six weeks long – June and the first two weeks in July.” Neatly coinciding with Wimbledon, of course – hence the Centre Court tradition of strawberries and cream.

“Now,” Laurence continues proudly, “it’s six months.” We also grow enough of them to be self-sufficient for at least part of the year – we picked about 53,000 tonnes in 2012.

The way we buy strawberries has also changed. Standing in a soggy strawberry field, eating your body weight in berries before taking a couple of punnets to be weighed at the cash desk, was once a staple British summer experience. “Now people just can’t be bothered,” says Olins. “Pick Your Own has been in decline for several years, partly because the varieties grown at PYO farms tend to be pretty poor.

“All the progress in breeding, and in developing ways to grow strawberries that taste better, keep longer, grow better, it’s all funded by marketing companies spending hundreds of thousands of pounds. And they’re proprietary products, so they don’t filter down to PYO set‑ups, who are still growing varieties that were discarded five or six years ago by the supermarkets and everyone else.”

So how can you tell a good strawberry? My mother always told me to avoid the ones that look like boulders, because they’re more watery, and said that smaller fruit tastes better. But Harry Hall looks at me as if I am mad. “Well, if the bigger ones don’t taste as good to you, leave them for me. I prefer them, there’s more there to eat.”

He rummages around in a plant that happens to be at knee-height – though at Harry’s eight fruit farms, berries are also grown at waist and shoulder height, which is more expensive to set up but easier on the backs of the mostly Polish, Bulgarian and Romanian pickers.

From the mass of small green berries and white flowers, he picks a single, whopping great red berry. “Strawberries grow on trusses,” he says, indicating a long strand of berries and flowers. “The first one on the truss is much bigger and it ripens first.” He produces a punnet he’s picked earlier, all so big and fat and red that they look like little cricket balls.

So if they’re all like that, you might just have got a picking of the first on the trusses in a particular row? “Exactly,” he says.

Broadly, there are two types of strawberry varieties. June-bearers, such as Elsanta, which fruit once only, early in the season; and everbearers – for example Jubilee, Sweet Eve, Eve’s Delight and Ava – which fruit more than once, and carry the season through to the autumn.

Try not to judge a berry too much by its colour, though. “The public is rather conditioned to like the very bright, light-red scarlet berries,” says Marion Regan. “That is because of varieties such as Cambridge Favourite, which has been around for years, and Elsanta, which you see a lot in the supermarkets and which can look very pretty. There’s a tendency to think there might be something wrong with darker, crimson berries, but often it’s just that a different variety is differently shaded.”

Elsanta has sometimes been accused of being dilute, not-strawberry-ish enough, falling victim to the worst side of modern agriculture. But, says Marion, “I actually still really like it. It’s had a bad press because it’s ubiquitous, but when it’s grown well it has time to develop good flavour.

“If there is one message for those buying strawberries, it is to look for different varieties, try them, see what you like. There’s a nice new one called Vibrant, an early-fruiter with quite a large berry that can be a bit darker than the others.”

At Harry Hall’s farm we manage to find three different varieties with berries ripe enough to pick. Sweet Eve, in particular, is strikingly different both to look at and taste, with a longer berry and much firmer, almost crunchy, flesh.

“That was developed by a strawberry breeder called Peter Vinson,” says Harry. “He’s the Messi of strawberries.”

It isn’t easy being a strawberry grower – Harry must contend with wind, snow, late frost and pests. And even if the fruit is all right, there are the vagaries of the British buyer, who will rush out and load up on strawberries when the sun shines and ignore them when it rains.

Some growers are using a new forecasting system that helps to predict when the strawberries will be ready, so that yields can be tweaked more in line with demand. Another cutting-edge system harnesses bumble bees as “flying doctors”, who carry fungus spores to the flowers of the strawberry plants, helping to stave off mould.

Two weeks ago, the weather had caused such a strawberry shortage that, compared with the same date last year, only half the tonnage had been picked. Today, with a weekend of sun in the bank and good weather forecast, the strawberries are slowly getting back on track. “The plants need continued warm weather to keep ripening,” says Olins. “This week supply is pretty much matching demand. Next week could be one of the peak picking weeks of the year.”

Which is good news for all of us. And if you have a glut at the wrong time, do you make an awful lot of jam, I ask Harry Hall?

“No,” he replies. “Because I really like Tiptree’s. My general manager and my pack-house manager make it, though, quite competitively. They’re always giving me jars...”

Note to the managers: I think Harry would prefer to stick with his Tiptree.

How to eat strawberries

They are delicious made into jam or quartered to put on pavlova with cream. But although traditionally thought of as a dessert, strawberries go very well with savoury flavours, too.

The gardener and cook Sarah Raven has a wonderful recipe for strawberry and black pepper ice cream (it’s in her Garden Cookbook) – the fire and perfume of cracked pepper is gorgeous with the sweet fruit.

They also go well with soft cheese or balsamic vinegar. And if you feel like a drink? Sweet wine works, of course, but an oddly magnificent match with a fine strawberry is a glass of dry red Bordeaux. It sounds odd, but try it and see.

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013