Strawberries are Ripe.
If I was to have another jab under the jacket of the government I see them in my mind’s eye zooming around their screens in search of the national unlocking with ‘a little bit here and a little bit there’ while trying to hold unrest and disruption in check. What they can’t control is the weather and the changing the English temperament.
They started with the garden centers, insane on the one hand and brilliant on the other. For anyone with a garden and wanting to DO something, getting dug in would ease off pressure like a slow puncture in a bicycle tire. What next? Shopping. Who knew how many people shop for shopping’s sake ?
Now something for the Yobs and the Snobs, to be unkind – which I will try not to be. Street markets. Stalls opened up, shops became markets and the Camden Market, just newly renovated last year, is open for business along with the Farmer’s Markets.
Primrose Hill Market opened up three weeks ago. Nope – not going on the first week. The second week we joined the long queue that shuffled along both sides of Primrose Hill, everyone making an effort at social distancing. The market was sparse, war weary, and I wanted to buy something from everyone just to help them feel it was worth the effort.
Mid-morning on week three we return. The day is blustery as if spring is pouting into summer. There is no queue. We are welcomed by the volunteers and the sweet young thing who is trying to sell her own mixture of hand sanitizer at the gate. But at £ 5.00 a bottle it’s pricey. “How do you like the smell?” “It’s very nice.” But I don’t add at this point that I don’t care how my hands smell from sanitizer. The market looks a little better as if a week’s rest has helped. But there are still big holes where stalls used to be. Where is farmer Geoff and his vegetables and eggs from Canterbury, the fishmonger from Poole, the local London honey and the wonderful Italian Pasta ladies? Even jolly Tony has sent a younger man from his dairy. For some market stalls this has been a swift axe blow, others are in hibernation, licking wounds inflicted by the virus induced lockdown. Vegetables are rotting in fields, but livestock still needs care, growth and slaughter. The two butchers are here and I shop from one.
And so is Carlo from the organic fruit farm in Kent where the soft berries are bursting on their vines and the ripe cherries dripping from the trees. Carlo has brought them all. He is a fast-talking, fast-working Eastern European who has an ease of knowing and selling that makes me wonder where he came from. Was he raised on a farm? Did his grandmother and mother want the same fruit that I do? For he has my strawberries. The berries that do not make the grade for elegant strawberries tarts or the Wimbledon tennis parties that are not happening this year, the little ones, odd shaped and more deeply flavorful from having been left in the field a little longer, in the hopes that they would turn into something prettier. Carlo knows that I want mine for jam and he has set aside – for ladies of a certain age – a few punnets of these berries. He tips three into a bag for me and I add some cherries for a morning coffee treat.
Standing at the sink and hulling the berries is soothing. The berries are small and flavorful and as I started them right away there are only three to be taste tested. Into the pan they go, layered with preserving sugar that is available for those of us who still do such things and a younger generation replaying their childhood memories and making new ones for their own families.
As children, out from boarding school for Sunday lunch, we would be sent ‘into the garden to see if you can find some berries,’ Did we ever. We had a huge bed of strawberries in the kitchen garden. Covered in high netting so that the gardener could walk through, the plants laid on fresh straw that reflected the sunlight and kept the berries clean. But first there were birds who had been caught in the netting to capture, and set free, before eating all the berries we picked before lunch which, of course, included strawberries and home made ice cream.
But now there are just the two of us in a little cottage in London to enjoy the fresh berries and make a little jam. After coffee the strawberries are hulled and layered together with the preserving sugar all smelling so sweet, a check that we have not lost our sense of smell. They will slowly absorb the sugar for 24 hours before I turn the heat on to bring it all to a rolling boil.
In the farm kitchen there is a jar full of spoons and one is ‘the jam spoon’ that over the years has been honed into shape, one side growing straighter from stirring and lifting to see the two drops come together as one and tell me that the jam or jelly is done. I have only one long-handled wooden spoon in the cottage and over time this too is beginning to change as the drops form with promise of the gifts that are to come.
This has been a Letter from A. Broad.
Written and read for you by Muriel Murch