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Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Raspberry Harvest

My raspberry harvest is the longest of the soft fruit harvests. It started this year in mid-June with the first of the yellow raspberries and it will probably still be just about hobbling along until October. Right now it is at its peak and the raspberries need picking every two days and will yield 4-8lb pounds each time.

It is funny how as the season progresses my attitude towards the raspberries change. At first there is great excitement and each raspberry is picked with care and we are anxious to pick enough to make a particular recipe - a cheesecake or a trifle or whatever. Then as the raspberries become more abundant I feel more relaxed and I'm happy to bag up some to freeze for jam making later. Then it all becomes a bit of a chore, taking up an hour or so every two days and needing doing again just as often. It suddenly takes on the feeling of a job like the washing - never done! And should I happen to drop one as I'm picking then I no longer bother bending down and scrambling about looking for it. Later in the season when they become rarer again, once again I hunt around, trying to make up the weight I need for a chosen recipe. And then in winter they are missed, although occasionally remembered by thawing some out and making a lovely jelly or something.

I never set out to grow as many raspberries as I do. Initially I bought 12 canes - that was all. Raspberries propagate themselves by sending up sucker plants a few centimeters from the parent. Sucker is a good term, because that is what I am, a sucker. When I see a new plant I can't help but want to keep it. So over the years we have gradually expanded the amount of space occupied by raspberry plants.

I remember last year when I went on holiday for 3 weeks in August my parents popped by weekly to harvest and water as necessary. On my return my mum told me about all the things they had picked and she described all the different ways she had used the raspberries. "Oh," I said, "do you like raspberries?".

"Used to," my dad muttered.

I know the feeling!

With limited freezer space, I spend the summer making raspberries into jam and desserts as quickly as possible. This year with the purchase of an additional secondhand freezer I am hoping I can relax a little and pace out the jam making for the rest of the year. There should always be plenty in stock!

Raspberry Jelly & Trifle

Raspberry Jelly

3 tablespoons cold water
1 tablespoon or 1 sachet powdered gelatin
8 oz (225 g) raspberries
4 oz (110 g) granulated sugar
15 fl oz (425 g) cold water

Put 3 tablespoons of cold water into a small pan and sprinkle over the gelatin, then stir and set aside for 5 minutes. Put the raspberries, sugar and 15 fl oz of water into a large pan and bring to the boil. Leave the fruit to simmer for 2 minutes until soft then press through a sieve to make a puree. Heat the gelatin over a low heat for a minute or two until clear then stir this into the raspberry puree. Pour into suitable containers/moulds and chill for 2-4 hours until set.

Raspberry Trifle

1 pint (600 ml) of raspberry jelly (see recipes above)
1 raspberry swiss roll
Raspberry cordial, apple juice or sherry
1 pack of ready to make custard powder
100ml whipping cream
100ml creme fraiche
A few raspberries

Make raspberry jelly as shown in the recipes above. Cut the swiss roll into slices and press into the bottom of a suitable dish. Pour over enough raspberry cordial/apple juice/sherry to dampen the sponge. Allow the cake to soak up the liquid and become mushy. You could also add a layer of fresh raspberries too at this point if you wish. Pour the jelly over the swiss roll and refrigerate for 2-3 hours until set. In the meantime, make up the custard as instructed on the packet and allow to cool completely at room temperature. Once the jelly has set, pour the custard over the top and level off. Return to the refrigerator for at least another hour. Whip together the cream and creme fraiche until stiff then spoon on top of the custard. Finish with a few fresh raspberries or glace cherries just before serving.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Strawberry Season

In my garden the soft fruit season always seems to start with strawberries. Usually this is in the first week of June but this year it started in May. There is something amazing about the first of any crop but the first strawberries are fantastic. Not that I get to taste many of them as my girls seek them out and gobble them straight off the plant, warmed and extra delicious in the sunshine.

It takes several days of strawberry harvesting before we have enough to take some home and serve them more formally as a dessert - usually just simply with cream. Then gradually, we are able to harvest several pounds at a time and this is when I start building up my stocks for jam making. By this point the sloppiness of girls' harvesting technique becomes apparent, as they continue to seek out the glorious "monster" strawberries. I follow on behind, meticulously picking the small, extra flavoursome ones that they overlooked. These make the best jam anyway.

It is hard to beat freshly picked, properly ripe strawberries and they are dead easy to grow. If you haven't already got strawberries growing in your garden or on your patio or balcony then go and buy a few plants from the nearest garden centre or DIY shop. They will produce a few fruit even in their first year and will continue fruiting and producing new strawberry plants every year after that. They don't take up much space and can be grown in containers as easily as straight in the ground. They need little attention too, although you may wish to net them to protect the fruit from birds and small children!

If you don't want to grow your own then try a bit of pick your own. Mousloe Farm near Newport Pagnell and Warrington House Farm just north of Olney are two places that you can pick your own strawberries in Milton Keynes. There is also Wakefield Farm in Potterspury, just outside Milton Keynes. Picking your own is fun and it can make for a great family activity too.

It is very easy when picking your own or growing your own to get a bit carried away and to end up with more strawberries than you can reasonably eat in any one sitting. They will store in the fridge for a few days but taste better if you allow them to reach room temperature before eating. You can, of course, pop them into the freezer too but when they thaw out they will be mushy so can only be used in jam and baking recipes. Not that that is a problem as there are loads of great recipes for using strawberries. Before putting any in the freezer, my girls love to help me make strawberry and marshmallow ice-cream with fresh strawberries; a good way to preserve the flavour of fresh strawberries to enjoy at your leisure any time.

Strawberry & Marshmallow Ice cream

1½ lb (700 g) strawberries
5 oz (140 g) icing sugar
1½ tsp lemon juice
8 oz (225 g) mini marshmallows
7½ fl oz (210 ml) milk
½ pint (300 ml) double cream

Puree the strawberries so that you are left with a seedless liquid. Add the sugar and lemon juice and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Put half the marshmallows and the milk into a suitable bowl and heat in the microwave for 2 minutes to melt them. Stir this mixture, add the cream and whisk lightly so that it thickens slightly. Combine with the strawberry puree, mixing until the mixture is evenly pink. Add the remaining marshmallows, pour into suitable containers and place in the freezer for 3 hours. Remove from the freezer and beat the ice cream to introduce air, to break any ice crystals and to distribute the marshmallows throughout the ice cream.

As with all British seasons, the strawberry season is short so get out there and get picking whilst they are at their best.