I finished my second degree a week ago today. After a very pleasant afternoon spent in the pub and dinner out with friends, I awoke the next morning full of anticipation, determined to spend the day doing nothing at all in celebration of the end of eighteen years of full-time education. Three hours later, I was bored out of my mind. I just don't do doing nothing. I had grossly over- (or perhaps under-) estimated myself in planning my days of freedom. I decided I would go and buy myself a completely new wardrobe. I had forgotten that I hate clothes shopping and am ultimately a jeans and T-shirt kind of girl. I decided I would laze around in bed all day. I had forgotten that I am a morning person and the thought of sleeping in past nine thirty disgusts me. I decided I would take a day off exercise. I had forgotten that I am nursing a fairly intense endorphin addiction and find being kept away from the swimming pool for more than 24 hours cripplingly painful. Ultimately, I was at a loose end, desperate for something to distract me from crushing, post-dissertation boredom.
I can't remember why it occurred to me then, but I recalled that for over a year now I'd been meaning to visit Medley Manor Farm, a short bike ride out of central Oxford. In the summer months they do Pick Your Own; I think their most popular crop is strawberries, but they also have broad beans, spinach, gooseberries, currants, raspberries and asparagus in season. The farm is down Binsey Lane; it's a very pleasant walk or cycle down a little lane surrounded by fields and plants, the perfect antidote to the rather hectic life of an Oxford Masters student. I could practically feel the stress of the last year melting away as I cycled along, listening to the birds singing, full of anticipation for freshly-picked strawberries and an afternoon of mindless activity that didn't require a single medieval text to be read.
I hadn't been to a Pick Your Own farm for at least a decade, and probably more like a decade and a half. I have vague memories of picking strawberries as a child with my parents, but seeing as I was a hugely fussy eater until the age of sixteen I doubt I ever actually sampled the crop I picked and took home. It's the same as sweets: I used to be obsessed with them as a child, though I didn't actually eat them. I would buy them with my pocket money and hoard them in a little box, fascinated by how many different colours, flavours, textures and types comprised the genre of the humble sweetie. I hesitate about admitting this part, but it might amuse my readers, so here goes: I even designed an Excel spreadsheet, at the age of about seven, in which I would catalogue all the different types of sweets I possessed and how many of each. Lord knows how I've turned out to be a relatively socially competent individual; the Excel spreadsheet and obsessive hoarding of sugary goods were certainly not good omens.
Fortunately, I am now a greedy fruit-lover (and no longer hoard sweets, though I do still make spreadsheets), so the notion of Pick Your Own holds an irresistible allure. Mass-produced supermarket fruit is fine, but it definitely lacks the flavour of something grown on a smaller scale. Largely because of the production processes, but also because the most supermarket-suitable varieties of fruit are not always the most flavoursome. There are so many different types of strawberry, but you'll rarely find anything other than the Elsanta variety in the shops. Imagine my delight upon entering Medley Manor Farm and finding a field of strawberries, with little signs on posts marking off at least ten different varieties. I went from row to row, admiring the changes in shape and colour, and (slightly naughty, but still) nibbling one of each to sample their differences.
There's a certain excitement that goes hand in hand with strawberry picking: the flash of scarlet catching your eye from between a canopy of drooping leaves, indicating a berry ripe and ready for plucking, is almost addictive. I filled a big plastic punnet in what felt like no time at all, stumbling across ripe fruit after ripe fruit. I love the way you can find a plant that seems to have nothing but green, hard berries on it, and then suddenly you'll see a plump, crimson gem nestling under all the leaves just as you're about to move on. It's immensely satisfying to feel like you've chosen your berries, rather than having them packed into a punnet for you by the supermarket's supplier. You can get enormous fat, juicy specimens, but also delicious smaller, slightly tarter varieties all in one box. I tried to mix and match a few of the strawberry varieties, mainly out of curiosity, picking a few from each row, though the biggest and ripest were in fact the Elsanta - I guess that's why the supermarkets like them. They had the most pronounced strawberry flavour, but I found a few of the smaller, slightly sourer types more interesting.
Next, onto raspberries. I clearly have no recollection of raspberry picking as a child, because I was quite surprised to see how tall the raspberry plants grow. It was like plucking grapes off a vine. These are my favourite fruits to pick: I love their slightly soft, almost furry texture, and the way the ripe ones slide off their stems leaving a little white cone. You can tell when they're ready to pick more by the feel of them than the look: some bright pink berries may seem ready for picking, but unless they give slightly and come away from the stem with little resistance, they're best left on the plant. There were two different varieties: Tulameen and Glen Ample, both of which I recognise from supermarket labels. The Glen Ample were slightly smaller and squatter than the Tulameen, and also a little sharper in flavour. They were both huge compared to the stunted, often quite hard raspberries you get in the shops; almost the size of small strawberries, and each one perfectly formed. The ripe ones were a joy to eat, so soft you could crush them with your tongue, and bursting with sweet-sharp juice. I got quite stained fingernails from picking these.
Gooseberries came next; I didn't go too crazy with these because I wouldn't be able to eat them raw, and would have to come up with a use for them (they're now in the freezer until I think of the perfect way to show them off). I was also slightly put off by the thorny bushes; at one point I couldn't tell if it was blood staining my fingers or raspberry juice. Probably a bit of both. However, these gooseberries were beautiful: really round, plump and firm. They were hanging off their bushes in abundance; I think I might have to go back and get some more. I've definitely never seen any that big in the markets, and their larger size is a big plus from a practical point of view: for the same weight, fewer individual gooseberries to top and tail.
Last but certainly not least, currants. I love currants. I always forget this because you don't really see them in the shops, and they only appear in markets for a very brief period of time, but having sampled the ones I picked I'm a true currant convert. You think of summer berries and often forget about the currants, but combined with the sweeter, redder berries they add a real je ne sais quoi: I think it's both their firmer texture and also their almost grassy, fragrant, sour juice. There were lots of blackcurrant bushes, and a few redcurrants, though the farmer told me that the redcurrant crop hadn't been very good this year, perhaps because of weather conditions. I managed to snaffle the few remaining ones, hanging like jewels near the ground on their bushes. They were huge, much bigger than the diminutive berries I've been buying from markets, and so fresh and shiny. The blackcurrants were harder to pick, as you have to prise each individual berry off its branch (they don't grow on a little stalk like redcurrants). I got half a punnet of currants, and then decided it was probably time to pay for my spoils, before I bankrupted myself with berries.
I've been eating this enormous hoard of berries for about a week now, and I cannot stress enough how delicious they are. It might sound obvious, but they are so much better than anything I've ever bought in shops or even markets. I guess because, unlike shop berries, they are picked at the absolute pinnacle of ripeness, rather than a bit early so they're still firm and transport better. The raspberries had sort of welded together in a squashy, juicy mass by the time I had rattled them home in my bike basket, which I see as a very good sign: it shows they were perfectly ripe. They tasted no worse for it; in fact, I think they tasted better, because they had turned more juicy. The strawberries actually tasted of strawberries; they were sweet rather than tart, and full of fragrant juice. The currants are the perfect match for the strawberries, providing a lovely sweet-sourness. One of my favourite ways of eating this mix of berries is stirred into porridge: the creaminess of the oats balances out the sourness of the currants, and then you have the gorgeous juicy strawberries and raspberries for texture and sweetness. They're also delicious on muesli, or served with vanilla ice cream. I thought about using them in a recipe - like the Czech bubble cake - but I think cooking fruit this perfect would be a bit sacrilegious. These are best eaten pure and unadulterated.
Having said that, though, I think a summer pudding would be the perfect thing to do with them: that way you keep each individual berry intact, with all its unique qualities, but create something rather special. I am going to go back and pick some more with this in mind. I'd really recommend a trip to Medley Manor Farm if you're at a loose end and want something to do. I found the whole experience incredibly relaxing; I was the only person in the raspberry field the entire time, strolling up and down the plants in the sunshine, plucking fat red berries from the leaves. It felt very old-fashioned and generally wonderful. In this hectic day and age, where food is normally something procured in a rush in a horrible crowded supermarket, it's so rewarding to be able to spend some time picking your own and being reminded of where your food comes from and the effort that goes into growing it.
The fruit is also quite good value: initially it seems more expensive than the supermarket, but that's because you end up with more than you'd normally buy, as the punnets are so large. I bought two huge punnets of raspberries and strawberries (about a kilo each), a punnet of currants, and half a punnet of gooseberries, plus some wild garlic (there's also a mini farm shop there selling things like garlic, beans, potatoes and spinach), for £14, which isn't bad considering the far superior quality and the sheer enjoyment of picking your own. I can't wait to go back.
(Click here for a guide to PYO farms in the Oxfordshire area)