This story starts with strawberries. In fact, all of my stories do, in a way.
Back where I grew up (in Sandhurst, Berkshire) there’s a PYO (pick your own) farm about 10 minutes drive from my Mum’s house called Grays.
While it’s grown into an award-winning fruit and vegetable producer, my Mum remembers the really early days, as she started going there when it opened – and carried on over the next decade until she became pregnant with me. Every summer since, it’s been a ritual that we’d go, pick strawberries, raspberries, dig up potatoes, pick marrows and beans, and talk for hours.
Going to Grays has always been a totally blissful bit of escapism for me. Everything from the giant strawberry installed on the road by the entrance, to the traditional cardboard picking baskets, and the tyre swing that I used to LOVE as a kid (and is still entertaining a whole new load of little ones today), all added to the joy of it.
The farm is now now by the second and third generations of Grays, and Mum still remembers Donald Gray, who opened the farm in 1973, talking about the best picking spots every time she went in. His son still does the same thing, driving around the site in an old white pickup, helping people work out the best rows to walk to to get the best picking.
Sadly, I found out at the beginning of this summer that the farm had been sold to Wokingham Borough Council, so Mum and I made several plans to go and make the most of our last year visiting – which would be our 30th summer in a row. On the *very first* day of picking for the 2015 season, we were there, raring to go.
We arrived, and a wave of nostalgia hit me square in the face as I walked into the barn – which houses the cashier tills, pre-picked punnets of fruit and vegetables, ice cream (I had my first ever Twister at Grays; lifechanging!) and homemade jams, pickles & sauces. I always smile at the tiny table full of bottles of orange and lemon squash for the kids to have a drink, because it’s such a perfectly simple representation of how generous the family who run the place are.
While picking up our baskets, we discovered that even though they had sold, the council wanted them to remain open for a few more years to come. Exciting news for us, but tinged with a little bit of sadness, since the Grays told us that since the local papers had printed that they were due to be sold, everyone has assumed they were closed – and business was down.
They asked us to tell our friends, which we promised to do – and we went out to the fields.
Since 2015 hasn’t been our warmest yet, those little red beauties were a little difficult to find, so we spent a few hours in the fields digging through the plants to find the ones that were brightest reds, but small enough to still be tasty and sweet. As we picked, I thought a bit more about the Grays’ problem. It’s not a lack of people knowing about the fact that they exist necessarily, it’s just an awareness of what the latest news is, or where to find that online.
I’d been sat staring at a jar of Garner’s picked onions the week before, having some kind of food epiphany. Not about pickled onions per se, I’ve always had a ‘Garner’s or nothing’ rule when it comes to that, but after years of trying to work out what I loved most about food (cooking it? reviewing places to go? baking?), it’s really very simple. I love finding great things, and sharing them with people that I think will like them too.
Mum and I turned our strawberries into some jam that weekend, using a less than traditional recipe from David Lebovitz, which uses less sugar to make it more fruity and calls for lemon to add a bit of zing. We used some HUGE sicilian lemons, and it ended up working a treat – but is was tough! It took ages, and using look and feel to assess whether it was ready is tricky to master. There’s lots of trial and error. I admire those who pay so much care and attention to the process. It’s a simple recipe, but it needs to be done right.
And so, I’ve made Boudicca Foods to start talking about all of awesome producers of classic British foods I love and will discover; what they do, where to buy them, and how they make their stuff so incredibly tasty. It starts with strawberries, but who know where I’ll end up…