Picking Fruit in Sussex – July 1924

They are telling me that there will be no Household column this week if I do as many boilings of fruit as I am planning for to-day and to-morrow.

It is extraordinary how we all ignore the lessons of experience and plan our work for the day and the week and the month and the years, on the assumption that this is a perfect world in which things always work smoothly without vexatious and unexpected interruptions; where our jams always jell with a minimum of boiling, our sewing never has to be unpicked, no callers come except when we are at leisure, and — most surprising failure of memory and of consciousness — a world in which we ourselves are always fit physically and mentally and take a tireless delight in working like super-women.

Splendid optimism, and faith and courage! — which almost persuade us that we shall be able to overtake this week what we have never been able to accomplish in any past seven days. I have a profound belief in the value of will-o-the-wisps. A little flicker helps us over stony places.

When I went out this morning to fill up a basket of raspberries for the market — trusting that a few more had ripened since the previous day — a blackbird scolded me loudly and persistently. After all, the birds are to be excused if they firmly believe that this is their world in which human beings are thieving intruders.

Otherwise, why when we had carried away every strawberry and stripped the black currant trees, should we twice a day (or so) push ourselves up the rows of raspberry canes and remove the brightest and softest fruit that had ripened beautifully for the bird lunch? Many times did he enquire of me indignantly, and finally with several chuck-a-chucks, he flew low in the direction of the red currants, sure of his revenge there.

Well! It would be worse if we hadn’t the birds. A friend of mine planted a fruit garden against the south wall of a barn and, to make certain of preserving all the fruit to her own use, she had it fenced round with wire netting almost six feet high, and when the ripening season drew near, she had the whole covered with netting.

A paradise for greenfly and other destructive pests was the result. It was impossible to do anything with them — she attempted it and found the task quite hopeless. She had forgotten that insect-eating birds are necessary to our gardens.

It was cooler to-day. Over the week-end the heat was oppressive, and one could have selected many cooler jobs than picking fruit in a walled garden up against the south wall. The breeze which dragged my hat off every five minutes smelt of Sahara. A deceptive sun-hat: cool and light if it would stay on the human head.

I learned later that it had been rejected by the whole family in turn. Hatpins were worse than useless as they dragged out tails of my hair, so that it was just as well I had no time to look in a glass before I sat down to lunch; coming in rather reluctantly as, by that peculiar mischance which always surprises us, I had not picked half as much as I had calculated I should do in the morning.

If I expect something of myself, others expect more: “Got them all picked?” I hear a voice from behind ask casually, and looking round I see a youth strolling leisurely across the middle patch. And here I must explain that the walled garden is large — an acre or so — and after being planted with fruit and vegetables of all kinds in more abundance than the family can consume, the centre of it is sown down with oats and tares.

This is gratefully cooling to the eye … It was unnecessary for me to reply to the question, so I asked another —- “Are you coming to help?” “No,” said the leisurely youth. “I have come for some green stuff for my poultry,” and proceeded to cut some of the green corn for his poultry interned in the intensive house. (They enjoy their imprisonment so much even in the height of summer that they do not attempt to go out when the door is left open, when someone goes to feed them or lift the eggs.)

Tired of stooping or of sitting on a stool under the currant bushes, I thought I would sit on the dry ground for a change. It was for all the world like seating oneself carelessly on a tumbled load of bricks half hidden under the green weeds which had grown up between the crevices. Sun-baked Sussex clay would give Eanthropus (the Piltdown skull-man who might be the earliest ancestor of us in this little island) the idea of a brick — a stone he could mould to the size and the shape he liked for the building of his oven.

I couldn’t help thinking about him as I plumped down on the edges and angles of the bricky sods, for that home of countless centuries ago is only a few miles away, and a memorial is to be laid on the site of the skull a few days hence. He would have his struggles with the clay in winter and the bricks in summer and he helped to make the weald lovely and habitable for us.

It was easy to guess why there are bricky corrugations under the currant bushes. It would be an easy way of turning down the weeds, and before he could finish and rake the ground smooth the part-time gardener would be called away to the hay. It is always a surprise to me coming from a northern county that, while harvest is very much earlier down here than with us, there is not much difference in the dates of hay time.

Grass was cut in parts of Cumberland weeks ago and much of it would have been housed if the weather had not again become broken towards the end of June. When I come to Sussex in the second week of July, I see hay everywhere in the fields, in all stages, lying in swathes, raked into lines, in “queyles” — “coyles” (what is the correct spelling of this word of varied local pronunciation ?) — but not so much of that, because in the drier climate of the South -Eastern counties it is practically safe to count on lifting the hay as it is raked. Most of the meadows are still to cut, which means that haytime will overlap into the corn harvest.

In comparison, there is a greater contrast between spring and summer months in the South of England than there is a few hundred miles further north. Last year, our summer in the north, with the exception of odd days and one fortnight in July, was no warmer than spring had been. So far, the finest weather we have had was in the two weeks preceding Easter. Well on into June, and until a week or ten days ago, it was wintry cold. Down here it was equally cold throughout spring and early summer, so that the growth of grass was delayed, but the heat and sunshine of July are rapidly colouring the grain.

The last of the black currants — the strippings of the bushes — we are making into bread and fruit puddings, pastry cakes and jelly. I had to stop in the middle of the last operation in order to write something for tomorrow’s early morning post. The juice was so thick at the first straining that not half enough came away. So I put the pulp back into the pan and covered it again with hot water, and simmered it for a minute or two, then strained it a second time, and the juice was rich and thick looking. It is all measured ready for the final boiling tomorrow.

In some cookery books the reader is warned not to press the pulp at all, merely to leave it to drip or the jelly will not be clear. This is all nonsense. It is true that pressing makes the juice flow out less clear but the muddy appearance completely disappears when it is boiled up with sugar.

Tomorrow we shall have a small boiling of red currants and raspberries. The currants alone do not make a favourite jam, but mixed with the rasps, they lighten the colour of the latter, impart to the jam a rather tarter flavour, and make it less heavy in appearance and substance. It makes a pleasant variety when one has odd pickings of fruit, and I have found it to be much appreciated.

May I add the very best recipe for black currrant jam? It is so simple that probably most housewives follow it. But here it is: A quart of berries (1 1/2 lb); l pint of water; boil together 20 minutes; add 3 lb sugar, boil five minutes.

There is a moon, almost full, shining from a dull grey-blue sky, purple at the horizon, tinged with rose above. These appear to me signs of continued sunshine in the coming days but I am told that the downs are too clear and too near.

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