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