Thursday, 3 July 2008


Pays de la Loire is a major fruit growing area. Not only grapes - the main vineyards are further south from us along the Loire Valley - but apple and pear orchards and red and black currants. In late August/early September there are always a large number of migrant workers who move into the area to do the apple picking. This is a back breaking job and not well paid. If you are lucky you will find work in an orchard that pays by the amount you pick. They have to guarantee the minimum wage but if you are quick then you will be paid a bonus accordingly. There are quality checks - they obviously don't want pickers who put in bruised or otherwise damaged fruit or fruit that is too small. A friend of mine makes her living picking apples and pears and each year brings me a huge bag of fruit that is not considered suitable for the market - of course, there's nothing wrong with it at all but it doesn't "conform" to the industry standard; and how stupid is that!

Last year the owner of one of these fruit farms called and asked her if she would work a week on the blackcurrant farm. She agreed as she realised he'd been let down but this is not a job she enjoys. Basically blackcurrants are picked by what could be described as a huge vacuum cleaner that is put over each plant and sucks the fruit off the tree. This then goes into the sorting area where people like my friend have to pick it over.

Of course it isn't only the fruit that gets sucked up, it's everything. She bought me a bucketful of blackcurrants last year and I went through it, berry by berry (can you imagine?!) to clean it. I'm not the fussiest person on earth and truly don't mind a bit of dirt. It's the frog's legs, slugs and snails that I object to. She said that they also have to be careful in case there are any snakes amongst the berries!

I was thinking about this as I picked the fruit off our two blackcurrant bushes this morning. It was a lovely sunny day and as we are away this weekend it was a job that had to be done. I've read in various books that if you prune out the fruit bearing branches as you collect the fruit it saves you a job later in the year. It also makes the fruit picking much easier! I was thrilled that I collected nearly a bucketful this year. It really has been a good year for fruit and veg - all that winter and spring rain I suppose!

I don't eat jam and so I don't make jam! Instead, I simmer the blackcurrants in a small amount of water and then sieve it to get all the larger bits out (stems and leaves that have got past the first pick over). I pour the resulting liquid concentrate into small aluminium ramekins which I freeze. I can then take out a small amount of concentrate as I need it during the year. My favourite indulgence is to mix it with cottage cheese for lunch but I also use it to flavour ice cream or to add a bit of variety to apple crumble. It's very strong though so you don't need much.

Please remember too, to wear OLD clothes as blackcurrant stains everything it touches! If you are working on a wooden surface you may want to protect this too - although I quite like the dark pink splashes of colour on the kitchen table and chairs!

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