Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Harvesting soft fruits [1]

For most of us, harvesting our soft fruit is the pinnacle of the growing season, after a year of growing, attention and work the just rewards are here. Is it simply a matter of going out into the garden or allotment and picking what we fancy? For the best results, not really.
Growing our own fruits gives us the very best in flavour, an eating sensation that cannot simply be purchased. A few simple rules brings out the flavour of the crop even more. Yes, faulty picking can impair the flavour!
Always try to let the fruit ripen on the plant or bush fully before picking. With soft fruits this is reasonably easy to judge, often by colour alone. A pink strawberry needs another day or two basking in the sun, an evenly red fruit is ready for picking. If you have been away for the weekend you might come back to find some fruits have turned much darker, almost purple in colour. These should be picked separately and reserved for cooking purposes, jam or a pie maybe. These fruits are passed their best for dessert purposes.
The above applies equally to raspberries but colour is not always a reliable indicator of ripeness. However you should always take into account the variety you are growing. I always remember an enthusiastic fruit grower who every year could not remember why his Redcurrants never turned red, they stayed ‘nearly white’ and then just rotted away. A little research revealed he was actually growing whitecurrants! My, was his face red.
The best time for picking is always early in the morning. When the morning is still cool and the dew is on the fruit they taste their best and this extra flavour is maintained after harvest. It is much better to pick them and keep them in a cool room until required for lunch or tea.
Always use a shallow bowl or container for picking in to, a mountain of fruits will crush and bruise the lower layers of fruit and this is especially important with raspberries which have a hollow centre after picking.
With strawberries try never to touch the berries with the fingers. The correct procedure is to hold the long stalk with the left hand, let the fruit itself rest gently on the palm of the right hand and nick the stalk that hold it cleanly with the fingers of the left. Lay the fruit gently in the container. Always leave the stalk and hull on the fruit until just before eating or preparation as this helps keep the berries fresh.
Now you know why exhibition fruits always look so good, it’s this attention to detail that brings out the best in them, it isn’t just the growing, it’s the handling too. If you grow a lot of fruit then of course it probably isn’t possible to lavish such meticulous care on every berry but following some rules and giving some care to them, plus taking as much time as you can picking, will all help enormously.
With Raspberries you must use the tips of your fingers to pick them. If the fruit is properly ripe you should not need to squeeze or pull in order to harvest the fruit. If it does not come away easily from the hull, it is not properly ripe. Just a light touch with the fingers and the berry should fall into the palm of the hand. Remember, a shallow container is essential. A tray would be ideal where the fruits can be placed in a single layer. Raspberries are picked without the store or core which is left on the plant.
Blackcurrants should be fully black for a few days before picking, if even slightly green they are not fully ripe and will be too tart and the flavour has not developed fully. They are often black for a week before fully ripe. You can pick the berries selectively if you wish and go over the bush a few times, as the berries probably won’t ripen all at once, or you can wait a week or two and harvest alla t once. This may be especially suitable if you are making larger batches or jam, pies, or freezing them so the task can be completed all in one go. A mature bush with well ripened fruits will begin to drop some berries; often an easy way of harvesting is to simply spread a ground sheet beneath the bush and give it a good shake. This will dislodge a lot of the fruits at once and you can then go over the bush by hand to pick the rest. Attention to detail with blackcurrants is not so important since they are never eaten fresh. And the quality of the product is not as important for fruits that are used for cooking or freezing. However you must sill make sure the fruit is properly ripe to gain the best flavour.

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