The sweetest thing
Picking fruit used to be a summer staple. but now there are few farms left that let the public loose to pick their own fruit. But in this one in Dublin, the rules haven’t changed, and neither has the sense of satisfaction from foraging for summer treats.
TEN MINUTES before Padraig Lambert is due to open his fields to the fruit-picking public for the first time this year, a small crowd has already gathered in his farm’s car park. They form an orderly, expectant queue of children and grown-ups, all with the look in their eyes of people on the sweetest of missions.
Lambert has learnt the hard way over the years that opening one minute before 10am or one minute afterwards means trouble. “I open at exactly ten o’clock; that way there are no complaints. People still come early trying to get me to let them into the field before opening time but I just will not do it. There would be war.”
At exactly 10am he gives the signal, the pickers line up to have their buckets weighed and then they are off into the fields that lie high up in Rathfarnham, Co Dublin.
This is a picturesque spot with scenery from a story-book nestled between the Pine Forest and the Hell Fire Club. Lambert stands on a fence and tells people the rules of the farm. The main rule is “pay before you eat”,which as anybody who has ever gone picking fruit will attest is almost a physical impossibility, especially when faced with the kind of luscious, jewel-coloured fruit to be found lurking under leaves on these expeditions.
Having contacted a selection of Irish fruit farms, I’ve discovered that Lambert’s may well be the only place left that is open to the public who want to pick their own.
Now 84, Pat Lambert, Padraig’s father, has family roots Wexford, the berry county of Ireland. He started growing fruit in 1963 for Chivers and has been letting the public in to pick strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries and tayberries ever since. Despite other farms gradually closing their gates to the public, Padraig Lambert, who took over the business from his father, continued to welcome them in.
“To be honest I would be afraid people would storm the place if I didn’t open it,” he says. “People are passionate about their berries. I’ve been getting calls for weeks about when we were going to open the field. One man rang me at 25 past 11 the other night to ask when we were open.”
It’s only just gone 10am but already the pickers are busy in the strawberry beds that Lambert planted with Symphony berries. The beds are under protective plastic dotted with holes so that the plants poke through.
He has been fortunate in terms of the day he’s picked to open the farm. In a summer that’s been a wash-out for fruit growers, this is perfect picking weather. No rain and even a bit of sunshine so that those who’ve come with picnics, such as Mary Nolan with her three-year-old twins Muireann and Nancy, can make a day of it. “It’s just a lovely thing to do with the children,” she says.
You follow the crowd with your own bucket to the beds. Reaching for the plump red strawberries sparks memories of your own childhood picking adventures. Sunny afternoons spent with juice-splattered fingers and sticky faces, the thrill of filling a bucket with sweet treasures, shamelessly ignoring the pay-before-eating rule and the sore tummy afterwards from too much gorging.
The picking crowd this morning all have their stories. A group of colleagues from the Bungalow family resource centre in Cherry Orchard, Dublin have come to pick strawberries to make jam, which they will sell to raise funds for the charity. Loretta Verdon used to pick berries as a child and is famous locally for her jam. “We made around €1,000 for the centre on jam sales last year so we though we’d come again and do the same,” she says. Strawberries cost €4.84 per kilo while the less popular gooseberries cost less.