Pick the cream of the crop!

Cara Houchen picking her own strawberries at Castle Eden Fruit Farm.
Cara Houchen picking her own strawberries at Castle Eden Fruit Farm.
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GOING to pick strawberries was something I looked forward to every year as a child. So when I decided to find Sunderland’s nearest pick-your-own strawberry farm, I was very disappointed to find Plawsworth Hall Farm, in Chester-le-Street, is no longer growing soft fruit.

After asking around and checking the internet, I found Castle Eden Fruit Farm, in County Durham.

This family-run farm boasts nine varieties of strawberries, including Honeoye, Darsalect, Elegance and Elsanta – which is the most common variety you find in the supermarket.

Picking strawberries is an age-old British tradition, and it seems fitting that it’s also associated with the 125-year-old competition of Wimbledon, which started this week, so grabbing a punnet of strawberries is an ace tip for tennis fans looking to bring the spirit of Wimbledon into their own home.

The competition marks a boom for most strawberry farmers, and Castle Eden is no exception.

Owner Pauline Wood said: “We enjoy Wimbledon, and people do seem to want strawberries more because the two go together – it’s nice to have a bowl of them while you’re watching the tennis.”

The family has been growing the fruit for ten years, so they definitely know what they are doing, and Pauline gave me a quick brief on the different types before I headed into the field to collect my own.

Pauline said: “Picking strawberries is just as popular as it’s always been. We have a lot of regular customers who come back year after year.

“Our fruit is grown naturally so we rely on the rainfall, and at the moment it’s a very good crop, even though we’re in the early part of the season.

“We don’t put anything on them, no pesticides, nothing. They may not keep as long as ones from supermarkets, but they taste much nicer.”

The farm is open for six weeks of the year, and Pauline and her husband Phil are helped throughout the season by their son David and his fiancee Emma Hodgson.

Pauline explained: “We are hoping to let David and Emma take over once we’ve had enough. Hopefully by then we will be growing a variety of different fruit, not just strawberries.”

She added: “My favourite is Florence. It’s a late strawberry which is lovely and sweet, it’s big, easy to pick and it makes excellent jam.”

After about 20 minutes my legs were cramping from bending down and my back was aching, but my enthusiasm was still going strong – I was determined to find the biggest, ripest, strawberries to take home.

Pauline and her team pick roughly 30 to 50lbs a day, which they sell on to small food shops, hotels and anyone who doesn’t want to pick their own but wants them fresh from the field.

“It’s very popular with families,” she said. “Parents can bring the children along and they can see how the food is grown and where it actually comes from.

“It’s a very British tradition. I used to go picking myself when I was a child, and the only thing that has changed is that a lot of pick-your-own have closed down.”

Pauline told me that even though she is surrounded by these berries every day, she still likes eating them.

She said: “I eat them more now than I ever have, and I do enjoy them – I have them every night.”

Although most people enjoy eating strawberries as they are picking them, Pauline says they can be used to make a number of other equally tasty products.

She said: “You can make jam, freeze them, and once defrosted they make lovely toppings for trifle or cheesecakes. I have regular pickers who use frozen strawberries to make smoothies – I’ve even had someone make wine with them, which was delicious.”

She added: “We don’t mind people trying the strawberries as they pick them, we do have different varieties and we want people to go home with the ones they will enjoy.

“It’s something you can’t do in the supermarket, and if your picking full punnets then that’s fine, it’s when people pick them and then don’t want to spend any money that it becomes unfair on us – there has to be a bit of give and take.”

I came away from the strawberry fields with an arm-full of my favourite fruit and a smile on my face – it really is a great day out, and if you’ve never picked your own before, make sure you give it a go this summer.

l Castle Eden Fruit Farm is open Monday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm. For more information, call 0780 2910 255