Speakers’ Corner- Taking the Straw out of the Berry

‘Have you seen the price of raspberries?’ I asked, my hands upturned, my face strained with rage. 

Sue gave that exhausted look, sighed, and in a slow, measured tone stated, ‘£3.89, for 140 grammes.’

‘Exactly!’ I said in triumph.  Sue realised another rant on Brexit and Tory incompetence was on its way, and I observed her eyes glancing down and her shoulders shrugging.  It stopped me in my tracks.

‘It’s great that after all these years,’ replied Sue with a drawl of sarcasm that intended to cut, ‘you’ve finally learnt to check the price of an item before you stick it in the trolley or click it into the shopping cart,’

As usual, Sue had a point.  It’s only hit my radar.  I’m responsible for purchasing at Powdermills B&B, and although our food costs have risen by 25% over the last eighteen months, it hadn’t registered.  My bile had been focused on energy costs.  But it took the cost of raspberries and blueberries for it to sink in.  Part of the Powdermills’ unique selling point is our breakfasts.  We provide fresh berries every morning.  It seemed appropriate to offer readily available fruit from Scotland’s countryside.  Strawberries and raspberries are as Scottish as kilts or bagpipes.  Our climate lends itself to growing luscious fruit, particularly in the East of Scotland.  The centre of the berry industry is around Perth, Dundee, and Angus, where great plastic tunnels scour the landscape, providing controlled atmospheres and irrigation for the plants to ensure ripeness and quality.  All these farming methods are designed to extend the growing season to ensure supply for the supermarkets. 

These high-tech growing colonies are clean and scientific, not at all like the Pick Your Own berry fields that I remember from my youth.  I spent many a Sunday in the summer with my mum on the fruit farms around Pencaitland, East Lothian, grappling with the small strawberry plants on the muddy ground.  Nowadays, there is no soil; they are grown hydroponically, but before all these so-called advances, you had to get down on your hands and knees to pick strawberries into cardboard containers.  Raspberries were taller plants, like vines, and not as backbreaking.  I didn’t like rasps, so my sisters picked and filled those punnets. This might sound boring, but it wasn’t, as the system for picking was simple: pick one and place it in the punnet, pick two more and put them in your mouth.  My mum would rattle through twenty punnets for her jam-making, and my sisters and I would produce one each.  The telltale signs of red fingers and lipstick were momentarily embarrassing as we handed our punnets to be weighed.  A knowing glare from the farmer was assuaged by my mum, who engaged in the local gossip of her upbringing. 

I recall wondering how they could make money when the pickers ate so many berries.  It was like getting something for nothing – a free treat.  But the growers had little choice as there weren’t the near indentured pickers from my mum’s youth to harvest the crop.  If it didn’t get picked, it would rot in the field.  And isn’t that funny how things come full circle?  Labour is short post-Brexit, and fewer berries are being sold, but for higher prices, the sophisticated plastic tunnels reliant on gas or electricity to heat and water the plants are now expensive. Ergo – rasps at £3.89!

Berries were seasonal then – lasted about four weeks if you were lucky, and the growers were from smallholders to large farms.  That’s changed, too.  No commercial berries are being grown in East Lothian.  In addition, what the berries are used for has changed.  Making Jams, marmalades, and pickling was a staple of the household budget for my mum.  Today, it’s more likely to be used for a fresh compote with yoghurt.

But I’m pleased to report that we are still making jams here at Powdermills – well, Sue is!  The sweet aroma of melting sugar and berries was like incense after a trip to the farms.  Often, it would end in hot jam butties or jam cream crackers, my particular favourite.  When Sue makes small batches of strawberry, raspberry, or bramble jams, I’m transported off to childhood memories by the waft of sweetness.  And our guests love the jams, particularly French and Spanish visitors, who regularly comment on the homemade jam.

Getting something for nothing is always an incentive.  In my teenage years, pilfering, a fancy way of saying stealing, was part of our summer routine.  Nicking apples, for the sheer fun of it, was a game that I played with my friends from Portobello, Edinburgh.  Around late August or September, the apples were ready to fall, and we often jumped a wall and stole an apple.  The large Victorian villas of Porty and Joppa were riddled with large gardens with apple and pear trees.  The apples were mostly for cooking and sour as hell.  The fruit fell to the ground and would often rot in situ, and it was easy for us to claim we were doing a public service.  Then, when we all turned sixteen, somebody had a bright idea.

‘I’ve got an idea to get us booze for free,’ said Jack, sweeping his black curly locks from his eyes.

‘Yeah,’ replied Pete, as he whittled a stick with his pen knife with deliberate strokes.

‘My cousin has given me a cider recipe – it’s for scrumpy, it’s toxic man,’ he enthused, his green eyes like pearls of light. 

We all edged in, listening to his every utterance as if it were like a lesson from the Old Testament.  However, I remember sitting on the rock on the railway embankment, our bolt hole, fed up.  Frantic discussions raged among the other four.

‘We’ll need lots of apples though,’ said Pete, his blond German helmet haircut cut not quite the ‘Robert Plant’ he imagined to the barber weeks before.  More excited chatter. Plans for when, where and how.  Who could steal the most plastic bags from their mum?  No one was that brave, so I finally volunteered to get six bags; the quantity that Pete had scientifically calculated was needed for ten bottles of cider.  There was agreement.  The raid on the local gardens for apples was to be Sunday, a quiet night, around seven when there would still be light, but dusk fast approaching to provide cover.  Jack’s mum and dad would be out at the church in the evening, and the treasure could be stored in his garage.

‘Any questions?’ asked Graham, the self-appointed leader of the group, partly due to his prodigious skill at acquiring slow dances at the weekend discos. 

‘Everybody has a job to do?’ Graham reiterated.  There was silence.

‘What about John?’ mused Stewart as he squinted at me.  Much to Pete’s annoyance, he really did resemble a rock star, more like Peter Frampton, however.  They all turned to observe me, I gave a sheepish grin.

‘He can be the lookout,’ suggested Pete as he tapped my leg and the hollow sound of my stookie echoed.  I smiled a thank you to the group.

Everything was going according to plan; Pete had drafted a drawing of the gardens that he’d recced with the stealth of the SAS.  Four bags were bulging, only the Manse to go.  We all knew the fearsome Reverend Symington.   A tall and lean man, much like a pencil with a ski jump of a nose that earned him the nickname of ‘Yodel’.  But he’d be out completing an evening service.  The manse was a substantial Victorian sandstone three-storey building with a huge garden, which was largely unkempt.  The garden backed onto the railway embankment and could be accessed by a small lane.    There was a sizable wall about four feet tall, but that didn’t offer much defence.  The bottom of the garden was an orchard, and I watched as the team went to work, shaking trees and avalanches of hard apples, crashing to the ground with a repetitive thud like a snare drum.  The abundance of the crop and the ease of job caused hilarity.  I thought they were being too noisy, but my attempts to ‘Shhsssh’ them just inspired louder and more infectious laughter.  They all seemed drunk.   I longed to be involved.   

‘You missed some there and there,’ I pointed, giggling, and joking.

Stewart returned to the wall with a full bag of apples.

‘Shame we didn’t bring more bags,’ he snorted and added, ‘come on over, Johnny, it’s safe; give me your hand. ‘

I didn’t need a second invitation and raised my leg and could hear the scraping of the plaster on the wall.  I heaved myself over, Stewart pulling me the last bit.  I crumbled onto the ground, roaring in hysterics, and felt like a fallen rider at Beechers Brook, a spectator at the frenzy above me. But within a moment, Stewart had disappeared over the wall.   I heard some shouts, and through the fading light, I saw Jack vault over the wall in a gymnastic style.  I remember being impressed with his athleticism.  Pete followed, the noise of his thundering sprint arriving before Pete’s body, and he hurdled the wall like a runner clearing the water in the steeple chase.  Finally, Graham approached, slowed by a plastic bag full of apples.  He was sniggering and cursing in equal measure.  He mistimed the jump and hit the wall with a thump, and the apples fell, many hitting me, still prone on the ground.  Graham hopped once, twice and on the third attempt, scampered over the wall.

‘Johnny, move, move! Yodel’s coming!’ shouted Graham, his voice tapered off as he disappeared down the lane.

Yodel’s conversation with my mum was private, but it sounded like a sermon of biblical portions from the other side of the door.

‘It’s ok, he’s left,’ said my mum, ushering me into the front room.  She had a smirk that eased.  She put her hand on her chin and narrowed her eyes.

‘Where’s all the apples then.’

‘In the lane where we left them,’ I replied.

‘Give it fifteen minutes and go and fetch them,’ laughed my mum.

Mum’s apple chutney was legendary, and I’m sure she donated a couple of jars for the church Thanksgiving service that year.

Perhaps it’s that we too often see the cost of things.  This year, I planted Blueberries in my raised bed, and we’ve had a bumper crop, which Sue has used in the breakfasts.  I think next year, I might plant some strawberries – I’ll probably need a plastic tunnel of sorts.  We’ve no apple trees at Powdermills, but we have a maturing pear tree that was gifted to us by Pete when he visited several years ago.