Guy Warner: Strawberry fields forever

Strawberries (c) Dino

Strawberries (c) Dino - Credit: Archant

When it comes to strawberries, it pays to pick your own...

The first day in May has traditionally heralded the start of the British strawberry season. This used to be an exciting, long-awaited moment – strawberries were a truly seasonal fruit and well worth the wait for the promise of that intense flavour and sweet juiciness.

Today I think we’ve lost some of that magic – strawberries are on our shelves all year round, mainly imported from Morocco and Spain, but even our British strawberries can have up to ten months’ shelf life, thanks to the use of polytunnels and other innovations in growing techniques. Indeed, despite March’s cold snap, the first strawberry of 2018 was a record-breaker, appearing on shelves in South Wales on February 22.

But are we any better off for this abundance of strawberries? I’d say not. You don’t have to be a food expert to realise that these year-round strawberries may look good but they really don’t taste the same as those long-anticipated, sun-soaked strawberries of summer.

The thing about strawberries is that they need the full force of the sun to do its work, to inject their soft flesh with life and flavour. And that means being patient – something us Brits aren’t very good at when it comes to our food.

That’s why I prefer to stick with that old tried and tested method of Pick Your Own. There’s no cheating when it comes to PYO – as soon as the fruit is naturally ripened in the sun, the fields open (usually around mid May or early June, depending on the weather) and it’s every man, woman and child for himself. It used to be a rite of passage in the Warner household to see how many ‘freebies’ you could snaffle as you picked your way through strawberry fields every summer!

It really is the best way to enjoy strawberries at their freshest. But if you’re haunted by memories of toiling on your hands and knees under the glaring sun, don’t be. Today’s PYO farms are much more user-friendly – many have raised beds so no more backbreaking bending and many have become destinations in their own rights with onsite farm shops, cafés, play areas and even campsites.

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If you haven’t indulged in a spot of PYO in recent years, I urge you to do so this year. We are blessed with a number of farms locally that offer PYO, not only of strawberries, but many soft fruit including raspberries, gooseberries and redcurrants. Take the family, make a day of it and enjoy some truly seasonal fruit at its very best.

Where to PYO in the Cotswolds:

Hayles Fruit Farm: Martin Harrell and his family have farmed on this 100-acre farm, based near Winchcombe, since the 1950s. It is one of four fruit farms in the area that dates back to 1880. PYO usually takes place in June and July but you are advised to call beforehand. There is an onsite farm shop, selling home-pressed apple juice and other goods, a café, campsite and nature trail. Hayles Fruit Farm is just minutes away from the Warner’s Budgens Broadway store – during strawberry season, you can find Hayles strawberries freshly picked from the fields on all Warner’s Budgens stores’ shelves – the next best thing if you can’t quite find the time for PYO this year!

Primrose Vale: on the outskirts of Cheltenham, this popular PYO offers 15 different crops for picking in the summer months. The first of these is the strawberry season which usually begins in late May and continues until the end of September. The strawberries are grown in raised platforms to make them easier to pick and you can bring your own containers. There is an onsite farm shop, café and children’s play area too.

Over Farm: Matt and Reese Keene have created a family-friendly farm experience just a mile from Gloucester City centre. Strawberry PYO opens in early summer, with strawberries conveniently panted on tabletops to save your back. Dogs are allowed in the fields on leads and if you reuse your Over Farm container, you get a discount on your next pick. There is a well-stocked farm shop, lots of friendly animals to visit and a new farm trail for the children.

Locally-owned company Warner’s Budgens have six stores in the area - Bidford-upon-Avon, Moreton-in-Marsh, Quedgeley, Tewkesbury and Winchcombe. Visit the website here.

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