The caravans that rumble into the Essex village of Tiptree are a sure sign that warm weather is on its way. The campers arrive every June to work for Wilkin & Sons – one of Britain’s oldest fruit growers and jam makers. “They’ve been coming here for over 50 years,” says Chris Newenham, Wilkin & Sons’ farm director. “We’re expecting about 100 this year, a real cross-section of society from miners to consultants.”
The Wilkin family has farmed in the area for more than 300 years; Arthur Charles Wilkin, the great-grandfather of the company’s present chairman, Peter Wilkin, made his first jam back in 1885. Today, the 850-acre farm is also home to greengages, Morello cherries and Victoria plums.
Most of the fruit goes into the company’s famous Tiptree jams, but some is reserved for Harrods’ bespoke preserves. These are cooked in traditional open pans, and the jars are handfilled to keep the delicate fruit intact. A small portion of the crop is sold in punnets. These berries are picked as late in the season as possible to give them maximum sun exposure. “Flavour overrides everything,” says Newenham. “We’re not looking for a berry that will last forever on the shelf; this is a perfectly ripe fruit that needs to be eaten in a few days.”
Little Scarlet strawberries, which are no bigger than your little fingernail, have been grown at the farm for more than 100 years, and go into the Tiptree jam of the same name. For punnets, the company uses the larger, sweet, fragrant Elsanta, which is in season from May to October.
Imported from New Zealand, the farm’s Karaka Black blackberry bushes produce equally delicious fruits with high levels of natural sugar, while the delicate, soft flesh of Tulameen raspberries requires skilled pickers. “You have to be able to tell when the berries are ready just by looking at the plant. When fruit is ripe, it should just fall away; if you have to pull, you risk bruising it,” Newenham says.
For a company that has held a Royal Warrant in jam and marmalade making for more than 100 years, Wilkin & Sons has a surprisingly modern approach to production and was recently recognised for its excellence in sustainable farming. “We’ve planted 10,000 trees and 5km of new hedgerows in recent years,” Newenham says, “and let the edges and corners of our fields revert to their natural state. This helps create habitats for wildlife, such as skylarks, lapwings, brown hares and insects.” However, nature sometimes bites back, and brown hares have wiped out the odd field of strawberry plants over the years.
The beautiful countryside around the farm is one of the reasons why the pickers return year after year. The other irresistible attraction is the Tiptree Strawberry Race, in which up to 150 pickers, decked out in strawberry-themed hats, fight it out to see who can pick the most Little Scarlet berries in an hour.
“It’s a quaint English tradition that raises money for charity,” Newenham says. “The record stands at around 7kg – amazing when you consider the size of the berries. The fastest picker competition is pretty fierce, but that’s nothing compared to the fancy hat contest. Everyone wants to win that one!”
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Scroll down for four delicious berry-based recipes to create.
REDCURRANT MERINGUE PIE Serves 6-8
For the pastry
100g unsalted cold butter, cut into small pieces
175g plain flour
A pinch of salt
2–3 tbsp water
1 egg yolk
For the redcurrant curd
2½ tbsp cornflour
60ml lemon juice (from approx. 1 lemon)
160ml orange juice (from approx. 2 oranges)
90g caster sugar
85g unsalted butter, cut into chunks
3 egg yolks and 1 egg, lightly whisked
For the meringue
4 egg whites
200g caster sugar
2 tbsp cornflour
Note: you will need a 23cm fluted flan tin
1 Place the butter, flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and whizz until texture is crumbly. Gradually add the water and whizz again until a dough forms. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
2 Roll out the dough 3mm thick, press into a 23cm fluted flan tin and prick holes in the dough with a fork. Refrigerate for at least an hour.
3 Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas 6. Put foil over the pastry, place baking beans on top and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the beans and foil, and cook for 8–10 minutes more, until the pastry is dry. While the pastry is still hot, brush it with the egg yolk. Cool on a wire rack.
4 For the curd: cook the redcurrants in a saucepan over a low heat for
15 minutes. Sieve the fruit, discarding the pulp and reserving the purée.
5 Put the cornflour in a pan and whisk in the lemon and orange juice. Add the sugar and purée, then heat until the mixture thickens. Add the butter, then the eggs; cook until it thickens again. Remove from heat and set aside.
6 For the meringue: preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F/Gas 2. Whisk the egg whites with an electric whisk until they form soft peaks. Add the sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until the meringue becomes stiff. Add the cornflour and mix well.
7 Pour the warm curd into the pastry case and spoon the meringue on top. Bake for 30 minutes until lightly brown. Rest on a cooling rack for 30 minutes, then remove from the tin and serve.
Serve with: Domaine de Durban, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 2008
37.5cl, £14.50. Available from The Wine Shop, Lower Ground Floor
William Yeoward “Edwina” 23cm tazza £92.95; Carrs “Jesmond” table forks £45.95 each; Saint-Louis “Caton” water goblet £108
STRAWBERRY CHUTNEY Makes 2 small jars (around 500ml)
For the chutney
250g caster sugar
200ml cider vinegar
200ml pomegranate juice or water
2 tsp salt
4 cardamom pods
2 tsp yellow mustard seeds
1 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
250g shallots, finely chopped
30g ginger, finely chopped
600g strawberries, quartered
For the open sandwich
200g crusty bread
150g vintage Cheddar cheese
60–80g of the chutney
4 tbsp pomegranate seeds
A handful of basil leaves
1 Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/ Gas 6. Sterilise 2 small jam jars and lids by placing them in the oven for around 30 minutes and allowing them to cool.
2 Put all of the chutney ingredients, apart from the strawberries, into a medium-sized pan and heat gently. Remove from the heat once the liquid becomes syrupy and the shallots are translucent (around 15 minutes).
3 Add the strawberries to the mixture and continue to heat, stirring occasionally to prevent the mixture from sticking. After around 15 minutes, when the strawberries have become sticky, remove the chutney from the heat and pour it into the jars.
4 Serve with an open sandwich of vintage Cheddar topped with pomegranate seeds and basil leaves. Store any leftover chutney in a cool, dark place. Once opened, consume within a few weeks.
Serve with: Meantime London IPA Beer 75cl, £6.50. Available from The Wine Shop, Lower Ground Floor
Villeroy & Boch “Farmhouse Touch” serve and bake dish £7.50; Carrs “Jesmond” teaspoon £27.95; Saint-Louis “Caton” water goblet £108
ROSEWATER PANNA COTTA WITH RED BERRY COMPOTE Serves 4
For the panna cotta
3 gelatin sheets
400ml double cream
100ml semi-skimmed milk
75g caster sugar
100ml half-fat crème fraîche
A few drops of rosewater (optional)
A few drops of vegetable oil
For the compote
300g strawberries, quartered
2½ tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp dessert wine
1 tsp rosewater
½ tsp lemon juice
Organic rose petals to decorate
Note: you will need 4 150ml moulds or ramekins
1 For the panna cotta, soak the gelatin sheets in a small bowl of cold water. Leave for 5 minutes until soft, then gently squeeze out the excess water.
2 Place the gelatin sheets, double cream, milk and sugar into a saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar dissolves, then add the crème fraîche and mix thoroughly using a whisk. Stir in the rosewater and set aside.
3 Brush a few drops of vegetable oil around the sides and base of each mould. Pour in the cream mixture and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
4 For the compote: put the strawberries, raspberries, sugar and wine in a pan and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat, then add the rosewater and lemon juice. Allow to cool, then refrigerate.
5 Remove the panna cotta from the moulds by dipping them in hot water for 2–3 seconds, then turning them out onto plates. Serve with warm or cold compote, and decorate with organic rose petals.
Serve with: Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé NV, Champagne 75cl, £59.95. Available from The Wine Shop, Lower Ground Floor
Villeroy & Boch “White Pearl” bread plates £10.95 each; Carrs “Dubarry” dessert spoon £43.95
BLACKBERRY AND CASSIS FIZZ Serves 8
For the purée
75g caster sugar
1 tbsp water
For the fizz
Plenty of ice
150ml of the purée
150ml gomme syrup
½ lemon, sliced
60ml lemon juice
800ml soda water
8 sprigs of mint
1 Heat the blackberries, blackcurrants, sugar and water in a pan over a medium heat, stirring frequently. Once the mixture starts to boil, turn down the heat and cook for a further 10 minutes. Allow it to cool slightly, then sieve, discarding the pulp and reserving the purée. The purée can be made up to 3 days in advance. Keep refrigerated.
2 Fill a large jug with ice, and pour in the vodka. Add 100g of the blackberries as well as the purée, gomme syrup, lemon slices and lemon juice. Top with soda water and mix well. Garnish with the remaining 50g of blackberries and a sprig of mint, and serve immediately.
William Yeoward “Bay” wine glasses £37.95 each and “Serena” large jug £259