Strawberry fields forever

Technology has changed the world but in the strawberry fields of Tiptree the fruit pickers work in much the same way as previous generations. On the day of the great annual Strawberry Race Lynne Mortimer visits Essex's most famous jam maker.

Lynne Mortimer

Technology has changed the world but in the strawberry fields of Tiptree the fruit pickers work in much the same way as previous generations. On the day of the great annual Strawberry Race Lynne Mortimer visits Essex's most famous jam maker.

There is only one good way to assess the quality of jam and that is to eat it.

At Wilkin and Sons tea rooms at Tiptree they serve jam in the best British tradition - as part of a cream tea.

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Soon I am gazing at two freshly-baked sultana scones with a small jar of jam and a slab of clotted cream. I understand when eaten for the purposes of journalistic research, a cream tea is not fattening.

I have selected Little Scarlet jam - this is a very small and intensely flavoured variety of strawberry exclusive to Wilkins although - as I discover in the company's fascinating museum about jam-making and the village of Tiptree - it was considered a big strawberry when it first arrived in England.

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At the time, the common strawberry was the indigenous wild variety which is even smaller.

First discovered growing in North America, company founder Arthur Charles (AC) Wilkin brought Little Scarlet to Essex for cultivation in the late 19th century.

When the annual strawberry picking fraternity arrives in Tiptree they harvest the Little Scarlets - a fragrant though fiddly job. At the annual Strawberry race, a charity fundraiser, they compete for a trophy awarded to the fastest picker.

It is a windy June morning with the buffeting gusts of a south westerly infused with the sweet smell of strawberries.

In the fields, the race has probably brought out the least physiologically helpful picking stances as there are a number of bottoms sticking up from the rows as the pickers strive to win by gathering the biggest haul in the allotted hour.

There are two communities of pickers; the caravanners and the students. The caravanners arrive, some in extremely swish motor homes, and set up home here for up to four months. Many come back again and again - some stalwarts have been coming here for up to forty years.

The students, this year, are mainly from Bulgaria and Romania and the fields have long enjoyed the attentions of European students.

Last year, a group of Italian pickers made a return visit - 50 years on from their first time at Tiptree.

With the extension of the EU there is sometimes a sense that European nationals have only lately started coming here to work on our farms but it has long been the case. Their annual arrival is a welcome sight for the soft fruit growers who have but a few weeks to get their harvest safely home.

Wilkins have been making jam for 123 years and the company's history includes some notable events. For example, in 1923 there was the provision of tiny Wilkins jam jars for Queen Mary's doll's house. A number of the miniature jars can be seen in the museum with their authentic labels and waxed lids.

Over the years the jam factory has been home to innovation and one of its inventions was the marmalade peel cutter, designed and constructed around 1930. Within a couple of years it had replaced manual cutting.

Outside the visitor centre with its tea room, museum and shop lie 1,000 acres of arable and fruit farm. The trees yield damsons, cherries, greengages, Victoria plums, mulberries, medlars and quince and then there are the strawberry fields stretching far into the distance.

Out here to enjoy the Strawberry Race is Ian Thurgood, joint managing director of Wilkin and Sons. There is a remaining Wilkin in the company and that is Peter Wilkin, company chairman.

Formerly a draughtsman working in Austria, Ian is a local man, educated at Maldon Grammar School. “I drove a tractor here as a summer job and that was the best job I have ever done,” he smiles at the memory. “I often think, when I retire, I would like a nice, spanking new tractor with air conditioning,” he confesses.

Out here, with the backdrop of strawberry fields, Ian is in his element and he clearly relishes being a part of this world famous company that still, somehow, manages to stay friendly and approachable. It feels as if everyone is part of the family.

The pickers too can gain recognition, being eligible for long-service awards after 21 years.

“At this size (of company) you can just about know everyone with 200-odd people.”

“We could do with a few more pickers. About four to five years ago our strawberry jam was going so well we were having to buy strawberries in and so we decided we were going to be self sufficient in strawberries.”

“Next year we should be self sufficient,” he says and this is why more pickers are needed.

One of the perennial caravanners - although to be accurate, she has a motor home - is Jean Credland, who started as a picker and was later offered the job of looking after the caravan site.

It was 12 years that the former teacher and hypnotherapist decided to seek adventure and so: “Me and the cat set off 12 years ago.

She says a lot of the caravanners are pensioners. “There are people here who are 80 years old - some have been coming here for 40 years.”

Jean tours Britain in her motor home but also likes to travel abroad and has lived in the Bahamas and visited South Africa, South America and the Galapagos islands. Her first trip to Tiptree was 12 years ago as a picker. “I came for six weeks and stayed four months - it's the best bargain in the world; a free site and you get paid for picking.”

Trying to sum up the appeal of this extraordinary annual event, Jean ponders: “It's an addiction; almost a religion. One man (now deceased) used to take time off work to come here. He had a painting of the view from his caravan on his wall.”

She says the way of life hasn't really changed over the years except - and she points to a couple of swish looking vehicles at the far end of the field - for the £50,000 motor homes. “Big money,” she nods.

“We're a community. When you come here you meet up with old friends and we keep in touch throughout the year.”

Jean gives a special mention to “Harry's homemade wine” made, of course, with strawberries.

The pickers come from all over - Aberdeen, Carlisle, Somerset, Yorkshire, London - and there are about 100 of them this year.

And will Jean keep returning? “As long as I can come back, I will,” she confirms without hesitation.

The student camp is separate with the young people living in park homes and Sonia Vanson looks after them.

Although the 150 students are largely from Bulgaria and Romania there are about 15 from the Czech Republic, says Sonia, who is a local lass from Tiptree.

“When I was a child I used to come strawberry picking after school and got 50p a bucket,” she recalls.

Any student who might think a bit of strawberry picking in the glorious English countryside is an easy deal would be mistaken. “They work very, very hard,” says Sonia. “We take them into the fields at about 4.30am and they will work until about 4pm. We make sure they're aware it's hard work.”

I mentally cross strawberry picking off my list of things I would like to try.

Is there money to be made picking fruit, I wonder.

It turns out that top pickers can make as much as £100 day… I tentatively pencil strawberry picking back in again.

Wilkin and Sons Limited makers of fine preserves at Tiptree since 1885: A potted history

1709 Trewlands Farm bought by William Goodman

1757 Trewlands entailed to Goodman's son-in-law John Wilkin

1841 Inventor John Mechi began experimental farming at Tiptree Hall

1860 The Wilkin family started growing fruit at Tiptree

1885 Arthur Charles Wilkin started making high quality “conserves” at Tiptree

1888 The Britannia Fruit Preserving Company was formed.

1900 200 were employed in the business full-time and up to 800 pickers helped harvest the fruit

1901 The business had 8,000 direct customers all over the world including royalty. By this time AC had established Little Scarlet at Tiptree.

1905 Britannia became Wilkin & Sons Ltd. Annual sales had grown to 170 tonnes

1911 King George V awarded the business a Royal Warrant

1917 The Wilkin Provident Trust was formed to look after employees in later life

1950 More farmland in Suffolk, the company now farmed over 1,000 acres. The Tiptree International Farm Camp was opened to provide accommodation for students who came to help with the harvest

1954 HM Queen Elizabeth II granted a Warrant for marmalade as well as for jam

1971 Peter John Wilkin, great grandson of the founder, was appointed a director.

1977 The first Christmas puddings were made at Tiptree based on an old Wilkin family recipe.

1987 Overnight, the Great Storm in October changed the face of the Tiptree estate.

1995 The Tiptree tea room opened next to the museum and jam shop now attracting 100,000 visitors.

2001 The new Tiptree savoury range was introduced - 10 of the 13 products are organic

2004 New Tiptree Jam Shop and extended tea room were opened by the chairman, Peter J Wilkin

Little Scarlet Sponge

(This sponge is best eaten on the day it is made, if you add oil or glycerine it helps it to keep a little longer)

3oz/85g Plain flour - sifted - slightly warm

3 oz 85g Castor Sugar

3 Eggs

(2 tsps Glycerine - to keep moist - optional)

To finish:

½ a 340g jar Tiptree Little Scarlet Strawberry Conserve

1-2 tblsps Juice from a fresh orange

1 tablespoon Icing or Castor Sugar

1 small carton Double Cream - whipped till fairly stiff (optional)

Set oven at 190 degrees.

Lightly oil an 8” fluted ring mould

Put eggs and sugar into a mixing bowl and whisk until pale and very thick

Add glycerine round the edge of the bowl, if being used

Sift the flour and gradually fold into the mixture with a metal spoon

Quickly check the ring mould and remove any surplus oil that has collected at the bottom of the mould

Pour the mixture into the mould and place in the centre of the oven. (I stand the mould on a baking sheet in case in case it spills over the tin)

Cook for 25-30 minutes

As the cake cools, loosen it from the tin and turn onto a cooling rack.

When cold, split the cake in half to make a top and a bottom, some people will split it twice.

Place the bottom half on a serving dish and sprinkle with orange juice

Spread a layer of Tiptree Little Scarlet Conserve and top with double cream (optional)

Replace the top part of the cake and dust sugar. Castor sugar if just using conserve, icing sugar if using conserve and cream

(NB you can use 3 tablespoons of oil for a Genoese cake instead of glycerine if preferred)

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