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.
ROSE GRANT from Rathfarnham has been coming here every year since her grandson was one. “He’s now 20,” she says. Today she has brought granddaughter Emma. “The air is wonderful here, the strawberries are delicious and when we go home we have a big feed of them with ice cream.”
Jana Kuznetsova, originally from Russia, has come from Lucan, Co Dublin with eight friends and family. “I think it is very good to show kids how food grows. Until now my son thinks strawberries come only from a box,” she laughs.
Some are fair-weather visitors to these fields while others are more seasoned berry hunters, such as married couple Frank and Maria. They bring cushions to kneel on and work the beds methodically, row by row.
By the end of the morning they have gathered an impressive 14.5kg of berries which, I venture, is going to make an awful lot of jam.
“We don’t make jam,” Frank clarifies. “We make strawberry wine.” They are sitting in their car now, drinking tea from a flask, basking in their mighty haul.
The couple have been foraging for decades. When they first moved to their home in Leixlip, Co Kildare they discovered cowslip in a field behind their house and began making cowslip cordial for the children.
Years later, when one of their grown-up sons was working in a winery in Germany, he told them about strawberry wine.
“I remember the first time we made it, the wine tasted like velvet,” says Maria. When you ask how it’s made, Frank is polite but firm.
“The best thing you could do if you want to make strawberry wine is to buy a book on the subject,” he says. Maria explains that it’s a complex and lengthy procedure. They’ll start the work now but the wine won’t be ready for bottling until well into the autumn. “We give it to friends for presents, and we have our own labels made,” she says.
They’ve been married for more than 40 years. Is making strawberry wine together a good recipe for marital success? “No,” says Maria, putting an arm around Frank. “We are just in love with one another. And we go ball room dancing.”
While strawberries are the biggest draw they are not the only attraction of Lambert’s Farm. Jam aficionado Noel Jordan has come for Lambert’s gooseberries, which he says are far superior, in jam-making terms, to the more popular strawberries, even if they are trickier and thornier to pick.
“Strawberries are mostly water, they don’t make good jam,” he insists, explaining that he has home-made jam on his porridge every morning.
Mary Pakenham explains you can get around the lack of natural thickening agent pectin in strawberries with the addition of lemon juice. “I’ve been making strawberry jam for years, lemons are crucial,” she says, insisting that there’s no need for the set sugar other jam-makers use.
Jimmy Kearns runs his own commercially successful fruit farm in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford and is the chair of the Irish Soft Fruit Growers Association. He says the Pick Your Own (PYO) industry in Ireland has all but faded away. “As far as I know Lambert’s are the only ones who let the public in to pick,” he says.
There are a number of reasons. The main one is that growers no longer want to run the risk of children coming in to what is a controlled farming environment where there is high potential for injury. Insurance is an issue.
“We are a commercial grower; that means lots of machinery, forklifts and big water tanks. You have to be very careful about letting people on the farm, so in the last 20 years it has just stopped,” he says.
Kearns says he has been “at the strawberries” for more than 40 years but that weather-wise this is the worst year he has seen. “A terrible year for fruit growers,” he says. “Our crop is three weeks late and we’ve lost about a third of the crop.”
After the good weather in March, the season seemed promising, especially since the fruit started to blossom early and grow well. “But since April we’ve had this consistently wet and cold weather so the first lot of fruit didn’t set properly, it was rubbish so we just had to pick it off . . . we’ve never had a year as bad as this one.”
For Lambert, one obvious indicator that this is a bad year for berries, apart from the lack of bees – “it’s been too cold for them” he explains – is that his raspberries are still not ripe. It’s disappointing because they are another big draw.
“People come up here, wander around the raspberries, listen to the bird’s singing, no radios, no noise, no nothing . . . it’s a great stress reliever,” he says.
The ripe raspberry fragrance and the smell of cut grass does interesting things to people, especially, he reckons women. “Last year all these women were wandering around here on a high, it definitely does something to them, I was looking at them thinking ‘I’ll have whatever they are on’,” he says.
Lambert’s Farm is due to open again this Saturday but if you’re thinking of making the trip, make sure you call the farm and enquire about fruit availability.
“It’s the same every year,” says Lambert. “People think it’s a shop and that I can restock but this game is very weather dependent and it just doesn’t work like that.” He hopes, but can’t be sure, that in a couple of weeks the raspberries will ripen.
“But do me a favour and tell people to ring before they come,” he warns.
Spending time in the fruit fields, it’s easy to see what Lambert means about the stress relieving nature of picking your own. Plucking fruit is a magical, almost meditative way to while away a few hours.
And in a constantly changing world, this is one pursuit that remains the same.
You head home to make jam for the first time in your life with a smile on your face. Here’s hoping the Lambert family keep their strawberry fields open to the public forever.
Pick it, buy it, eat it
According to Patrick English, who runs English’s Fruit Nursery in Co Waterford, the pick-your-own (PYO) fruit business in Ireland was pioneered 30 years ago at the Kinsealy Research Centre in Co Dublin, where many Dubliners’ childhood fruit-picking memories were made.
Now, apart from Lambert’s Fruit Farm (01-4939896, please ring before you visit), there are few pick-your-own farms in the Republic. When we called Derryvilla Blueberry Farm in Portarlington (087-2466643) they said they might open at some point during the summer but only to adults, not children.
You will fare better in Northern Ireland, and better again if you are holidaying in England, Scotland or Wales, where there are more than 1,000 PYO farms to choose from. In the North, try Oatlands Fruit Farm in Co Down (048-92682223).
As an alternative, some farms do farm-gate sales. Organicguide.ie has a listing of organic farms offering sales of fruit and other produce.
Fruits in season at the moment include strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries. August will see the start of blackberries, tayberries and loganberries, which will run into October.
One way to pick your own is to grow your own. Patrick English sells a wide variety of fruit bushes available from englishsfruitnursery.ie. For contacts, tips and support, see giyireland.com.