THE PICKS OF THE PATCH
This is the tale of two berries. One, the strawberry, is ubiquitous – somehow diminished by its success – and in demand throughout the year; the other is near extinction and almost entirely the preserve of the gardener. The future of the gooseberry is in our hands. Both are delicious, and in season at this time of the year. Gooseberries haven’t always been a neglected fruit. Admired by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for its “sheer, zesty oomph” and lauded by Culpepper, Tusser and Turner, this tart hairy berry was at its peak during the mid18th century among cottage gardeners and cotton growers whose main ambition was to grow larger and larger berries, a process that often seems to herald decline in ingredients. Like apples, gooseberries come in cooking and eating varieties. With little space, I grow a dessert berry and use the thinnings (to encourage bigger berries) in the kitchen. Gooseberries have an affinity with elderflower cordial and sweet cicely, both at their best now, which help reduce the tartness associated with this fruit. Gooseberry fool is heavenly. Nigel Slater likes the crunch of the un-sieved gooseberry seeds in his; Delia uses Greek yogurt in hers; Lotte Duncan uses custard and elderflower cordial; and I like a mix of one part mashed sweetened goosegogs to one part custard to one part thick whipped cream. How do you assuage a yearround insatiable appetite? British strawberry growers have to fight the weather, the supermarkets and foreign competition, but let’s remember that there’s no taste quite like that of an English strawberry – a survivor of fluctuating temperature – that has fully ripened on the plant. Search for local growers at farmers’ markets, pick-your-own farms, and roadside stalls. I spoke to Phil Boddington, a fourthgeneration Cornish fruit grower from Boddington’s Berries, which has eschewed national supermarket sales for local shops, tea rooms and hotels to be able to provide freshly picked, daily delivered berries from its farm in Mevagissey. He told me that many commercial varieties are not available to the gardeners, and some are only for supermarket growers. He believes the only good strawberry is one that has been grown to full ripeness, harvested and sold that same day. Next best are those put into Boddington’s handmade conserves, cordials and vinegars, available nationwide from its website, boddingtonsberries.co.uk. Gardeners are in a unique position to eat berries at the zenith of ripeness, as we battle against all creatures feathered and furry (a fruit cage from harrodhorticultural.com is the My strawberries grow in a sunny spot in the orchard. I have recently ungratefully discarded my unnamed crop, given by a friend, and am planting ‘Mara des Bois’. Best grown in a raised bed on any soil with plenty of added organic matter. Site your bed out of the wind, away from trees and keep well watered and weed-free. Grow early, mid and perpetual varieties to prolong the season. Commercially, plants are grown on polythene; mine lounge on carpet underlay mats or straw to suppress weeds and protect the fruit. Pick regularly, but wait until fruit is at its peak of ripeness. After the growing season, tidy up and add a further layer of mulch. I grow mine as standards, sentinels at each corner of my raised fruit bed. Try one of Chris Bowers’s (chrisbowers.co.uk) 34 different varieties, such as ‘Crown Bob’ or ‘Achilles’. Plant your prickly bushes in the autumn in rich soil in a sunny site. Keep well watered until established, and mulch with compost. Prune in November into shape like the spokes of a cartwheel to encourage air circulation and prevent mildew. Take cuttings from prunings. Fruit forms on old wood, so cut back to the previous year’s growth to two buds. Thin fruit now and use in the kitchen, leaving space for larger eaters. Watch out for bullfinches and sawfly caterpillars. It’s a shame the finches aren’t carnivorous. Our passion for strawberries is nothing new. Sacred to Odin’s wife, Frigga, cultivated by the Romans, and served as an aphrodisiac to medieval newly-weds who were treated at their wedding breakfast to a dish of berries, soured cream and borage, strawberries are feted in recipes the world over.