Angie Jones explores autumnal apples at Park Fruit Farm…
When you begin to notice the coolness in the evening and the early morning grass sparkling with dew drenched spider’s webs you know autumn is near
Autumn, the season of mellow fruitfulness; of blackberries in the hedges and wild mushrooms in the meadows and yes… apples. Autumn; sugar crusted apple pies and baked apples stuffed with raisins and oozing with butter, drowning in a sea of yellow custard.
Not far from the Essex coast, in the quiet village of Great Holland, along a country road is Park Fruit Farm; half a mile from the nearest bus-stop and railway station.
The Elsworth family have farmed here for three generations and this is the place to go for apples – and not just any apples but thirty nine varieties to taste and to buy. And oh, such varieties with such intriguing names! For instance, there’s Blenheim Orange – first known in Oxfordshire (1740), a large dessert apple. Bite into its greeny-yellow skin blushed with orange to enjoy the distinctive, dry flavour of its crunchy, firm flesh. Or Striped Beefing, (a green cooker embellished with a red strip), that keeps well and is good for baking with a rich sweetness; picked mid-October it keeps until April. Or try D’arcy Spice – our local apple, first found in Tollshunt D’arcy near Colchester in 1785, with its aromatic flavour, that ripens into a spicy taste during hot sunny days.
The trees were planted in 1935 by Norman Elsworth and in the seven years before they produced their first crop he learned all he could about growing fruit. His son, Eric left school at sixteen and studied at Writtle Agricultural College. Together they ran the farm until the year of 1966 when two events changed the family; Norman died and Stephen was born. Today it is Stephen who runs the farm.
In the early 1970s when Britain entered the common market, Eric thought that this would be the end of fruit farming in England. So he decided to chop down the trees. Out came the chainsaw. But during that night as he tossed and turned, the farm shop idea was conceived. He set about planting as many different varieties as he could find as well as plum, pear trees and raspberry canes on the 60 acre site. But in the ensuing years all around him, Eric saw the industry shrink from 2000 growers to 800 and today, sadly there are only about 300 left in the UK.
When Eric retired, Steve reshaped the farm. His grandfather had taken apples in bushel boxes by tractor and trailer to Kirby Cross Railway station. From here they went to London to be sold in the old Covent Garden. But there was little profit in this, so Steve took the decision to concentrate on local trade and the farm shop itself, in the old packing house. Here today customers can still watch the grading and sorting as they choose from the 39 varieties, or they can savour Rose’s (Steve’s wife) sticky pear ginger cake in the orchard tearoom.
‘Rose always had a dream to run a tea room. It opened in 2008 and she has built up an excellent reputation locally for homemade cakes using fruit from our farm,’ says Steve, proudly. Rose also creates wonderful lunches – vegetable lasagne is a firm favourite, followed by raspberry Amoretti cake! Open daily 10:00 – 16:30 (closes 15.30 on Sunday).
Customers are invited to explore the orchards, to see the beautiful pink blossom in April or May, and to gather pick-your-own plums from late July until September (ring to check availability before you go and remember your wellies after rain!). Ask at the shop if you‘d like to have a tour.
You can also buy potatoes from nearby Frating; mushrooms from Great Bromley and honey from bees in Tendring (apple blossom gives a deliciously dark, runny honey).
Every week the Elsworths also make apple juice and sell it straight from the press. Try the Bramley/Cox blend or Russet juice or Red Pippin. If it is cloudy, leave it to settle, for this is the natural sediment of apple solids. The juice is not pasteurised so retains the rich, sharp taste of fresh fruit and will keep for up to five days in the fridge.
They also produce cider vinegar which is bottled and sold in the shop – great for marinades or as a vinaigrette dressing drizzled on the crisp salad leaves to add a tangy flavour and a splash of healthy nutrients.
Any remaining fruit is sold to other local independent shops or to cider makers. They have a policy not to supply marketing giants.
Steve tells me that the good old Cox remains a best seller. It is picked in mid-September, but best stored until October for the sweet, rich taste to mature. Jonagold – a golden orange colour is becoming popular too. Its creamy white flesh tastes almost as sweet as honey. Depending on the weather, the apples are harvested from late July until early November. The pears are picked during August and September as are the plums. ‘I run the farm single handed, with extra help in the orchard at busy times. The tea room employs five part-time staff.’
So if you take a trip to the Essex coast for the day, make a detour to find Park Fruit Farm and treat yourself to real English fruit. The farm is open Monday to Saturday. Apples can be bought in boxes of mixed varieties or simply choose your favourite one – right up until January. And allow a little time for a glass of farm-fresh juice and a slice of Rose’s delicious homemade cake!