Easy pickings:

Chef Richard Hughes on the joys of fruit­pick­ing back in the day

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE -

As the first lo­cal strawberri­es ar­rive in the shops, road­sides stalls and al­lot­ments, this year’s haul will taste bit­ter­sweet, re­gard­less how fine their flavour.

My mum, Alma, died re­cently and one of the many things which in­stantly brings her to the fore­front of my mind is strawberri­es and the fields where they grow: it was in those fields where I learned from her the im­por­tance of hard work, a les­son I have never for­got­ten.

Mum was one of the hard­est-work­ing peo­ple I’ve ever met. The strawberri­es we picked in those flat Fen­land fields in the fur­thest cor­ner of Nor­folk paid for any lux­u­ries our fam­ily en­joyed; our new bikes, camp­ing hol­i­days in Mablethorp­e – all were paid for in strawberri­es.

The red jewels hid­ing be­neath a canopy of green marked the be­gin­ning of sum­mer and her­alded the cer­e­mo­nial open­ing of the straw­berry al­lot­ment shed.

A rick­ety con­struc­tion made of rusted cor­ru­gated iron and held to­gether by the huge pad­lock on the front door was the gate­way to the smells, sounds and tastes of a true Fen­land child­hood.

Over the thresh­old, the neatly stacked pun­nets, the pre-war weigh­ing scales and the odd field mouse had laid pa­tiently through the win­ter months, ready for the manic few weeks that her­alded the straw­berry har­vest.

Those au­then­tic nostalgic French scenes of the swarthy locals sweat­ing over the ‘vendage’ were re­peated in small ham­lets all over East Anglia, as it was all hands

to the fields to gather in the rosy red trea­sures. I can’t re­mem­ber a sin­gle day’s rain dur­ing the pick­ing sea­son - per­haps the mem­ory re­ally does play tricks when you reach my age.

It felt like our whole vil­lage was to be found in the rows, with ev­ery­thing put on hold un­til the fruit-laden lorry had been to col­lect the day’s pick – tray upon tray of neatly ar­ranged pun­nets of uni­form pic­ture-book ‘strawbs’ ready for the su­per­mar­ket shelf and piles of berries of all shapes and sizes ready for the jam fac­tory.

A real treat for the fam­ily, but an ex­tra hour on the day for Dad, was the trip to Hunter Rowes’ col­lec­tion de­pot at Three Holes, when we failed to reach the day’s tar­get and were forced to de­liver the fruit our­selves to the gangs of scruffy stu­dents and trav­ellers who worked at the yard.

We would then join the queues at the fish and chip shop, buy them wrapped, and en­dure the agony of hav­ing the hot sup­per rest­ing tan­ta­lis­ingly on our laps as we

made the 20-minute trip home. Dad would al­ways stand and chat to fel­low pick­ers in the queue and our pa­tience was stretched to the limit as we an­tic­i­pated sup­per.

In the days be­fore food stocks be­came com­mon­place, the sheds were al­ways full to over­flow­ing with pun­gent red moun­tains, with the cool evening air per­fumed like a lux­ury bub­ble bath. These stu­pen­dous stock­piles of ripe fruit would be bar­relled up and pulped and sent off to Smed­leys at Wis­bech to turn into lus­cious jam.

From our field to the cor­ner shop’s jam pot, was all within a ten-mile ra­dius of our back­yard.

The pre-sea­son an­tic­i­pa­tion be­fore the go­ing rate was set was pal­pa­ble. Would it be 3d or 4d for the pun­net and how many could you pile into your bucket be­fore you had to waste valu­able time in col­lect­ing more car­ri­ers? The high­light of the day was the weigh­ing-up cer­e­mony as dusk ap­proached, when the day’s blis­ters and back­ache were con­verted into pounds, shillings and pence.

The year the rate went up and we re­ceived £400 a ton for the ‘jam­mers’ was in­deed cause for cel­e­bra­tion. If you re­ally ap­plied the pres­sure, you could oc­ca­sion­ally wan­gle a day from school to help with the pick­ing this meant a 6am start and then you would have to hide in the shed like a Great Train Rob­ber as the school bus went by be­fore you had the all-clear to re­turn to your row.

Visit the Fens to­day and you’ll do well to find a straw­berry field, but back in the 1960s ev­ery house­hold had strawberri­es in their gar­den, on their al­lot­ment or they picked for the near­est gang.

My mum grew strawberri­es right un­til the end in her gar­den. When she wor­ried what would hap­pen to her pre­cious plants af­ter she’d gone, she was com­forted by the thought that the beloved birds she’d watched from her win­dow in the same vil­lage for 84 years would ben­e­fit from a straw­berry feast.

This month’s Step by Step is a recipe in­spired by our straw­berry field days and by my beloved Mum who in­spired me to cook, who taught me the im­por­tance of hard work and so very much more. A life well-lived and a loss to all that loved her.

Time for a well-earned rest now, Mum.

‘In the days be­fore food stocks, the sheds were al­ways full to over­flow­ing with pun­gent red moun­tains’

Straw­berry pick­ing in Nor­folk

Sweet straw­berry

ABOVE: Phillip, Richard, Alma and David Hughes Richard Hughes

BE­LOW: Straw­berry pick­ing at dawn near Kings Lynn in the long hot sum­mer, June 1976. Right are the fruits of the pick­ers’ labour Archant

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