Feeling Fruity?

I drink strawberry Ribena don't I?" exclaims my contrary daughter when I remind her that she's the only person in the whole world who won't eat soft fruit. She has never liked it - she'll eat cabbage and even Brussels sprouts before she'll let a strawberry or blueberry pass her lips. Weirdly she even grows strawberries (sweet little alpine ones in a pot) but will she eat one? No. This is a tough time of the year for her then, as it's soft fruit at every turn at the moment, and the rest of the family are more than happy to eat her share. I have heard that berries - straw- rasp- black- blue- goose- and also currants - red, white and black - are nutritious to the point of bestowing super powers. They're packed with antioxidants and mysterious phytonutrients that can stop ageing, viruses and cancer. In fact eating blueberries alone will improve your memory and eyesight, boost your heart health, your immune system and metabolism ("Yeah, and?" shrugs Alice when I tell her of these miracles and how sparkly she could be if only she would eat just one). The other good news is that soft fruit is easy to grow. Only don't expect too much in the first year, and don't expect anything after that either if you haven't got a fruit cage, or at least some netting. Soft fruit in particular is irresistible to anything (apart from Alice) that can walk, crawl or fly across your garden. Unlike most vegetables, fruit is grown in a permanent place and is borne on a bush or perennial plant, making it generally less labour intensive. Care is straightforward, but each type of fruit needs a slightly different pruning technique.

All fruiting plants need good fertile soil and the occasional boost from a potassium based fertiliser (wood ash is high in potash and can be sprinkled at the base of the plants in spring). The application of potassium will encourage flowering, fruiting and ripening. Adequate water and sunshine are important (although some plants will put up with a little shade), especially when the fruits are ripening.If you're new to growing fruit, then I would have said raspberries were the easiest things to start off with, but I've changed my mind. Now I'd say blueberries, providing you grow them in acid soil (I use ericaceous compost in a large pot). They form a neat bush and once established will happily provide handfuls of magic berries without much more than a quick prune in winter. I only grow one type of raspberry; the autumn fruiting ones, because they're so easy to maintain. Each year in early spring just cut all the canes down to ground level and by August (or earlier - certainly before the autumn) you will have canes full of fruit. Summer fruiting raspberries are nearly as simple, but because they fruit on old wood, you cut down the old canes just after they've fruited and then tie in next year's growth. Strawberries are low growing perennial plants that spread by producing runners (baby plantlets on a long stalk) that can be potted up and grown on as separate plants. Strawberries should be planted with the crown (where the roots join the leaves) just above the soil and on a slight mound. The shallow trench that's created on either side of the mound can then be filled with straw - I do this just as they start flowering. The purpose of the straw? Apart from giving the berry its name, it will keep them off the muddy ground and aid ripening. Like most soft fruit, they can be container grown. There are cultivars of strawberry fruiting at different times (some of them perpetually) so - in theory - you can be cropping them all through the summer. I've had limited success in my garden with strawberries because we have badgers and strawberries (and sweetcorn) are their special favourites. This year I stapled the netting down with a staple gun (so that even I couldn't get in). It's a cruel and annoying irony that many of the plants in my garden are grown to encourage birds and other pest controlling animals, but the very same creatures will also wolf down all the produce given half a chance. There are lots of solutions available - from bespoke and highly ornamental fruit cages to rustic posts (and worse) with netting thrown over them. But without the protection of netting the pickings in your fruit garden will be slim. Whichever you choose, make sure that the net is fine enough to stop birds getting in, but that the mesh size is large enough to allow the beneficial pollinating insects in to fertilise your crops. It also needs to be quite taut - it's easy for birds, especially the newly fledged, to get caught up in it with tragic consequences. Soft fruit plants take a little while to establish and really you need to wait until the second year before you start cropping them - let the plant build up its strength in the first year. But after that, apart from an annual feed and prune, it's as easy as pie...

Victoria sandwich cake with fresh cream & strawberries

  • 200g butter
  • 200g castor sugar
  • 4 medium sized eggs, beaten
  • 1tsp vanilla essence
  • 1-2 tblsp milk, if needed

filling:

  • 284ml tub (small) double cream, whipped
  • 2-3 tblsp best strawberry jam
  • 5-6 sliced strawberries
  • caster sugar to sprinkle on top of the finished cake

you will need:

  • 2 x 7 inch lined/greased round baking trays, oven pre-heated to gas mark 5/150C

1. Cream the sugar and butter together until pale and fluffy, then gradually add the egg a little at a time (I hold back the last 'eggsworth' and incorporate this with the flour if I think the cake is in danger of curdling). 2. Sift the flour into the mixing bowl, add the vanilla essence and fold in carefully, adding a little milk until a thick 'dropping' consistency is reached. 3. Fill the baking tins with equal amounts of the batter and bake for 20 - 25 mins (golden brown and springy to the touch). 4. Turn out onto wire rack to cool and then spread one half of the cake with a layer of jam, sliced strawberries and cream. Add the top half and sprinkle liberally with caster sugar.

Mini Pavlovas

Home made meringue requires patience and a cool oven. I lack one of these things, but if I concentrate really hard I can be successful. If you can make meringues, yours - unlike the shop ones - will have light, crisp outsides and slightly chewy centres. If you can't/don't want to make them, you'll be almost as grateful for shop bought. These mini versions can be filled with any combination of seasonal berries - sharper berries contrast well with the sweet meringue and the cream.

For the meringues:

  • Use 60g sugar for every (extra fresh) egg white and a drop of white wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp whipped double cream per meringue
  • 1 small handful of berries

1. Pre-heat oven to gas mark 2/120C. Line flat baking trays with parchment. 2. Make sure the bowl and all utensils are grease free and that no yolk has accidentally got in with the whites of the egg. 3. Whisk the egg whites together until just past soft peak stage (i.e. just before the mixture's too stiff) then slowly whisk in the sugar and add the drops of vinegar. 4. Spoon or pipe the mixture into small nest shapes on the baking tray(s) and put in the oven for 45 mins-1 hour. 5. Turn the oven off and leave it to cool. Spoon in the cream and arrange the berries on top.

Scones with jam & cream

Makes 6-8 scones

  • 200g self raising flour
  • 50g butter
  • 25g caster sugar
  • 150ml milk
  • 1 beaten egg (optional)
  • pinch salt

1. Pre-heat oven to gas 7/225C, line/grease a baking tray. 2. Mix the salt in with the flour, then rub in the butter. 3. Stir in milk and sugar lightly until a dough forms. 4. Carefully roll out to the right thickness and stamp out rounds with a pastry cutter. 5. Glaze with beaten egg if using and bake for approx. 15 mins. Serve with strawberry/raspberry/blackcurrant jam and clotted cream

General recipe for jam:

Use whatever soft fruit you have available, but you may need to add some pectin (and or lemon juice) Jam sugars contain pectin. You will need a large pan, some sterilised jars and good quality fruit that's not over ripe. The basic proportions are 1kg fruit to 1kg sugar for strawberries (these are low in pectin) and 3kg to 1 kg most other berries. The fruit and jam are first slowly heated so that the sugar crystals dissolve and then (this is why a large pan is useful) the mixture is turned up to a 'rolling boil' until a set is achieved. Keep a calm head and small children and pets away from the vicinity while your jam is rolling and boiling. Test for a set by spooning a tiny bit of jam onto a chilled saucer - if it goes wrinkly and moves slowly across the saucer, it's set.

To find out more about Jo's practical gardening workshops visit www.hornbrookmanor.co.uk or call 01233 861186

  • words Caroline Plaisted
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming