STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER…
“But don’t forget the gooseberry”
Pick-your-own farms are as much a part of the traditional British childhood summer as donkey rides along the beach and egg & spoon races on sports day, conjuring images of long sunny days spent rummaging in the strawberry beds and eating more berries, than went in your basket. When pick-your-own fruit farms began springing up in Britain in the 1960s, people were still living in the post-war years, having been brought up with rationing and the ethos of making a little go a long way. Families would drive out at weekends to pick baskets of fruit and vegetables that were preserved, tinned and frozen as supplies to see them through the winter.
The golden years for PYO’s were in the 80’s, but the arrival of supermarket giants a decade later, sent fruit picking popularity into decline. Since then a generation has passed which simply went to a retail park for convenience, choice and cost. Although they have never gone away, pick-your-owns are enjoying a revival this summer, thanks to glorious weather, a renewed passion for fresh, local produce and a desire to get out in the fresh air after weeks of ‘lockdown’.
Family run McLauchlans of Boxted is an Essex fruit farm currently enjoying the resurgence of fruit picking popularity. On reopening for the start of the 2020 season they experienced a massive increase in demand for their produce, welcoming 4 times their usual number of visitors, over the first 10 days. Unsurprisingly strawberries are their most popular fruit, but also cultivated on the 15-acre farm are raspberries, redcurrants, broad beans, sweetcorn and not forgetting the humble, hairy and quintessentially British gooseberry.
We visited Boxted Berries on a beautifully sunny Saturday morning, eager to fill our punnets full of this somewhat forgotten but deliciously versatile fruit. The gooseberry, once so popular, has fallen out of favour over the years. You rarely see them in our supermarkets, which is a shame, as with a little imagination, gooseberries can make delicious additions to both sweet and savoury dishes. It is important to use the right variety for each dish, seek out the pink-tinged dessert gooseberries (Pax) for crumbles, fools and cakes. The bristly little green gooseberries (Invicta) lend themselves perfectly to chutneys and relishes, beautiful paired with mackerel or pork, where the tart fruit cuts through the richness of the meat and fish.
The moment we arrived at the fruit farm; we knew this was a special place. It immediately filled us with a sense of nostalgia as we took in the hand written chalk boards, immaculate hedge rowed fields and listened to the sounds of excitement as children compared the fruits of their labour. We were greeted warmly by Jim McLauchlan, who proudly showed us around the farm; his family’s legacy. Founded in 1939 by Jim’s grandfather Charlie, and opened to the public as a PYO in 1969, the ensuing McLauchlan generations have ploughed their love and passion for farming into the business. Employing around 4/5 people year-round and 15/20 seasonally, the farm is a very much a family and local community affair.
Fruit farming is hard work and frustratingly unpredictable; one harsh late frost can wipe out a whole crop, but that’s the nature of the business, Jim tells us. It can be a constant battle against the elements, insects and birds. Boxted Berries farm organically, using bio-pesticides only when absolutely necessary and on each row of netted plants, hangs a cocktail of cider vinegar and raspberry juice that the pests just can’t resist! The result: plentiful, tasty, plump fruit that’s had a chance to mature naturally.
If you’re short of time or don’t fancy grappling with the incredibly thorny gooseberry bushes (gloves definitely recommended!) then Jim’s pickers have done the hard work for you and you will find produce from the farm and plenty of other locally sourced fruit, vegetables and more, in their shop. We highly recommend the gooseberry and strawberry jam made by Mrs McLauchlan (Jim’s mum), it’s delicious!
So, what is the future for Pick-your-own fruit farms? Is this just a temporary revival that will lose its appeal once we fully return to the rat race? We sincerely hope not. It’s true that 60% of McLauchlans of Boxted’s regular customers are over 60 but we optimistically hope that the tradition of fruit picking will be passed on to their children and grandchildren. With a passionate generation emerging that champions the environment and sustainability, it’s fantastic to see that more and more of us are celebrating and supporting our local farmers. Long may this continue, keeping the small producers and farms thriving and saving ‘Pick-your-own’ from becoming just a childhood memory.
McLauchlans of Boxted Fruit Farm
53 Straight Rd, Boxted, Boxted Cross, Colchester CO4 5RB
TO BE CONTINUED……..
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NEXT POST: Gooseberry Rum Liqueur…
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