Remembering back-breaking days picking strawberries
- Credit: Archant
As the first local strawberries arrive in the shops, roadside stalls and allotments, Richard Hughes reminisces about the forthcoming Fenland strawberry harvest
It was the ritual to mark the beginning of the summer. Never mind Wimbledon, the Saturday nights with Val Doonican on dire seaside specials from the BBC or the sudden arrival of the seven-day a week ice-cream man, the signal that summer fun had arrived was 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 lain 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.
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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.
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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 twenty 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 the luscious jam. From our field to the corner shop's jam pot, all within a ten-mile radius of our backyard.
The pre-season anticipation before the going rate was set was palpable. Would it be 3 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. How our country allotments differed to those of the stamp-sized lettuce-filled lawns of the townies. Our acre was still deemed to be an allotment, even though many townsfolk are given to believe that it's a smallholding. When the brothers' bickering became too much, we would be banished to the maidens, to search for the first year's crop. We would race each other to the strains of Jimmy Young, to be the first to complete our row, often leaving half the fruit on the plants.
Visit the Fens today and you'll do well to find a strawberry field, but back in the 1960s every household in the Fens had strawberries in their garden, on their allotment or they picked for the nearest gang. Nowadays strawberries are available all the year round from all parts of the globe – but they never taste the same if you haven't picked them yourself.
The secret story attached to my Mum's Strawberry and Lavender Pie:
Towards the end of the strawberry picking season, as the backs became creaky, the knees pierced by the needle-like straw that marked the rows, and our fingers indelibly stained with the juice, the ladies were occasionally forced to relent and protect their poor weathered hands with powdered rubber gloves. The scented talc would be stored in the corner of the shed, alongside emergency floppy hats, warm squash and Lyons Harvest pies.
Once, on arrival at the field's end, Mum was aghast to find my brother had discovered the lavender talcum powder and had proceeded to liberally douse tray after tray of the fresh fruit, believing the powder to be snowy icing sugar. As the collection lorry approached my Mum was faced with the dilemma, should she rinse them and miss the pick-up? Of course, she quickly turned the 'strawbs' over, and into the jam they went, powder and all.
So if you had a jam sandwich back in 1967 that tasted slightly scented, congratulations, you were the first to taste the Hughes brand of cutting edge culinary art.
Alma Hughes' Famous Strawberry and Lavender Pie
70g ground almonds
30g icing sugar
1 egg yolk
zest of 1 lemon, chopped
450g strawberries, washed, hulled and cut in half
125g caster sugar
1 dessertspoon dried lavender flower heads, rubbed and crushed
zest and juice of 1 lemon
Pre heat oven to Gas Mark 6/200°C
• To make the pastry, simply combine all the ingredients in a food processor.
• Add a little cold water if required to form into a smooth dough.
• Rest for 30 minutes.
• Fill a 15cm deep plate or pie dish with the strawberry filling mixed with the lavender flower heads.
• Top with the pastry, brush with beaten egg, and sprinkle with caster sugar.
• Bake for 25 minutes. Do not garnish with talc.