Strawberry fields forever

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Tom picks strawberries at Birchin Lee

I HEARD the grandchildren being told to pick the strawberries and not eat them or at least not too many! So I told myself the same, filling the cardboard trug as swiftly as I could and taking only the occasional nibble. Mmm, firm and decently sweet.. Around me on this sunny Saturday morning in a field on the fringe of Sheffield other families were doing the same, at least one, with a child, from Eastern Europe.

I hadn’t done this for at least five years, with another set of grandchildren. I have been fruit picking in between, blackcurrants and gooseberries, blackberries and apples and rowans but it has all been for free, in parks and neighbours’ gardens. And my own. But on a Pick Your Own site, as at A Pearson & Sons at Dronfield Woodhouse, you queue up to weigh and pay.

PYO was always worth a story in summer when I ran the Sheffield Star’s Diary page. I’d ring Edwin Pocock at Totley Hall Farm because he was an obliging sort, only too happy to stride over the strawberry fields, pick the biggest and reddest one and pose, jaws ready, to be snapped eating it for my photographer. And, of course, I got some to take home.

Eventually, even though I christened him King Strawberry, he stopped growing soft fruit and, instead, concentrated on running nativity scenes in a barn with a friendly donkey or two. He blamed a lack of trade on people no longer able or knowledgeable enough to make jams, jellies or pies.

I try this on Howard Pearson, third generation soft fruit grower at his BIrchin Lee Nurseies but he’s not having it. Business is still brisk although there are fewer PYO sites, he says, flicking through that day’s bills in the post while watching the till. What variety of strawberries is it? Elsanta? (that’s the only one I know.) “I don’t like Elsanta, too hard. We’ve got Lucy and . . .” he mentions another variety I forget.

The company website tells you that Howard’s grandfather George took over an old nursery as a market garden at Mickley Lane, Totley, in 1889 and expanded to Bichin Lee in 1910. The business wound up in 1961 for family reasons and Howard’s father started the present firm as market gardeners. They grew, among other things, strawberries until 1976, a hot summer “when all the strawberries were ripening faster than our staff could pick them. We decided to open the fields of strawberries to the public for Pick Your Own and we have been doing it ever since.”

So far there are strawberries and gooseberries to pick with a few raspberries already ripening. I tried a few but they still needed sunshine. Howard begged to differ – he’d had half a punnet for his tea – but then it is his business. There were plenty of gooseberries and I picked a pound or two but not not as many as one family who’d picked two big trugs full. Their car was next to mine. What were they going to do with them? “Jam,” said one of the women. “With elderflowers,” said the chap and strode off, presumably to find some.

On the way back we stopped at Sharp’s greengrocers on Abbeydale Road and found 250g boxes of raspberries at two for £1 so bought 1.5 kilos for jam and tea.

I follow the Delia Smith method for making strawberry jam, which keeps the fruit whole. For every pound of fruit you use 14oz of sugar (or 450g of fruit to 400g sugar). Mix gently together in a bowl (or in your preserving pan), cover and leave overnight. The following day the juices will have dissolved much of the sugar.

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The strawberry juice dissolves the sugar

Gently reheat until all the sugar has melted and bring briskly to the boil, adding the juice of at least half a lemon, for pectin. I don’t use a thermometer but put some plates in the freezer to chill. When you think you are ready turn off the heat, pour a tablespoon of jam on the plate and leave in the fridge for five minutes. If it wrinkles, it’s ready.

If you had plenty of scum when the fruit was boiling get rid of it by turning off the heat and whisking in a knob of butter. It really works.

I like a light set with my jams which usually take 24 hours to stiffen up. If your fruit rises to the top of the jar simply upend it (as you would with marmalade) and keep doing so until it is more or less evenly dispersed.

I got five half poundish jars of strawberry jam and the same for raspberry jam. You can proceed as for strawberries but the fruit is much more prone to breaking up. Use equal amounts of fruit and sugar and lemon juice for pectin (or redcurrant if you have it).

My grandchildren love raspberry and strawberry jam. It shouldn’t last long!

Visit http://www.pearsonsnurseries.co.uk

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Raspberry and strawberry jams

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