Heading to Hugh Lowe Farms between Tonbridge and Maidstone, it does not take long to understand why Kent is known as the garden of England. With its abundance of fruit orchards, hop gardens, vegetable fields and even some vineyards, the county is home to many favourite British crops. Amongst them, the quintessential English strawberries and blackberries.
I have come here on a Farm to Fork visit to Hugh Lowe Farms, a 125 year-old family business reknown for its premium English strawberries, blackberries and rapsberries. For over 25 years, it has been supplying all the strawberries to the Wimbledon Championships. Hugh Lowe Farms is a founder member of the grower cooperative Berry Gardens, through which they market their fruits and also have exclusive access to the prized Driscoll’s varieties.
While I am a bit early in the season for raspberries, the gorgeous Jubilee Selections Strawberries and Driscoll’s Victoria Sweet Blackberries laid on the table certainly catch my tastebuds and attention.
Jubilee Selections’ British-grown strawberries are reknowned for their exceptional quality, perfect heart shape and naturally sweet and aromatic flavours while Driscoll’s Victoria Sweet Blackberries are valued not only for their natural sweetness but also for their unrivalled taste and plumpness.
Standing at the top of the hill of one of its strawberry fields, I can see an overview of Hugh Lowe Farms 700 hectares (1,730 acres). Spread around the Kentish countryside, the property encompasses mixed farm lands and berry fields and arable crops, alongside uncropped areas managed for wildlife and environmental schemes. The operation is headed by fourth-generation farmer Marion Regan, who is not only passionate about berry growing but also about the environment and biodiversity.
Sustainability is very much in Hugh Lowe Farms’ DNA. Investing in renewable energy, water conservation and protecting biodiversity not only helps preserve the environment it also enables the farm to improve its bottom line.
We manage meadows, wild field margins, hedgerows, trees and coppice woodland. We plant seed mixes for wild birds to feed on in the winter, and nectar rich flower mixes for bees and butterflies in the summer. Putting up nest boxes for birds and bats and gates for badgers, while trying to protect hedgehogs, are all part of farm life.
Without proper pollination by insects and other pollinators strawberry flowers are unable to develop into fruits. Keeping a balanced and diverse ecosystem is essential. Dozens of beehives are spread around Hugh Lowe Farms properties, to pollinate both berries and native flowers.
The farm uses a combination of polytunnels and glasshouses to create the optimum growing microclimate. This means that, in spite of the inclement British weather it can grow berries from May to November.
Hugh Lowe Farms grows its strawberries in pots filled with coconut coir. The pots are arranged on ‘table tops’ which not only provide a better crop hygiene but also make it easier to pick the berries.
Pollination and beneficial insect management are combined with water-efficient irrigation to provide the ultimate growing conditions for crops. To avoid spraying crops, hoverflies, ladybirds and lacewings are encouraged in the polytunnels. They feast on crop pests while biocontrol and shelter from rain aim to reduce mildew.
To ensure the best quality possible, most berry crops are picked, packed and shipped within a few hours. Contrary to popular belief, the picking itself is a highly skilled job. At Hugh Lowe Farms , berry pickers will pick up to 40kg of strawberries a day, assessing each one for ripeness and quality.
As I fill my own punnet I cannot help noticing how pretty these English strawberries are, still dressed in their leaf and petal skirts.
Our visit to Hugh Lowe Farms continues with a tour of the glasshouses where blackberry and raspberry crops are grown. Hot and bright, they provide the perfect growing conditions. Huge and juicy Driscoll’s Victoria Sweet Blackberries produce large fruits with deep purple centres.
Again as I tried my luck at berry picking, I realised that picking the perfectly ripe blackberry is a lot trickier that it looks. Even if the berry looks perfectly coloured on the outside, it might not be ready. It takes a slight squeeze and gentle tug before deciding if it is ready for harvest.
To ensure best taste, quality and nutritional goodness it is essential to eat berries that have been picked ripe and in season. Seasonal products tend to be higher in nutrients at the time of the year when our bodies need them most. Berries bruise easily in transport and do not self-ripe like bananas or pears. If you want to experience their full flavours and benefits it is best to buy them from a British grower.
I was truly amazed by the taste of the freshly picked Jubilee Selections strawberries and Driscoll’s Victoria Sweet Blackberries I ate at Hugh Lowe Farms. Such an explosion of flavours. Keen to demonstrate the versatility of berries, Marion Regan kindly invited us for lunch at her house.
We sat around a beautiful table decorated with seasonal flowers and enjoyed a variety of dishes. While traditionally, English strawberries and blackberries are served with dessert and pudding they in fact work really well with savoury dishes too.
We enjoyed a strawberry, feta and mint salad alongside a freekeh and quinoa salad with nuts, herbs and blackberries. Dessert was a combination of basil ice cream, salted caramel brownies and fresh strawberries, rapsberries and blackberries from the farm. What a treat!
Both strawberries and blackberries are a great match with cheeses such as feta, mozzarella, ricotta, goat cheese etc… and will quickly jazz up any summer salads and BBQ sides. They add not only colour and sweetness but also a host of nutritional goodness.
Qualified nutritionist Jenna Hope explained to us why eating berries is so important to a balanced and healthy diet. Strawberries and blackberries are not only low in sugar but also rich in micronutrient polyphenols known for their antioxidant properties.
Blackberries owe their deep purple colour to high levels of antioxidant anthocyanins, which are essential to protect against cardiovascular diseases and help promote blood flow. Blackberries also contain high level of vitamin C, fibre and are a good source of vitamin K and A. Their anti-inflammatory properties can aid keep a healthy gut microbiome.
Strawberries are high in antioxidants too and contain more vitamin C than oranges. They are an excellent source of beta carotene (a precursor of vitamin A, essential for healthy skin and eyes) and lycopene (an antioxidant that can help reduce risks of prostate cancer). Both lycopene and beta carotene are fat soluble so it is best to consume them with healthy fats such as almonds, olive oil, avocado, seeds etc..
Adding fresh and seasonal berries is an easy and delicious way to improve your diet. Because they are so versatile they are perfect in sweet and savoury dishes. You can eat them as snacks or in smoothies, jams, salads, ice creams etc…. They freeze brilliantly too so you can enjoy them in the winter months too.
Look out for Jubilee Selections’ strawberries (from May to the end of September) and Driscoll’s Victoria Sweet Blackberries (from May to October). They are available from all major supermarkets.
Inspired by my day out to Hugh Lowe Farms I created this Summer Berry Salad. Served with a drizzle of fragrant basil & mint dressing, it is bursting with flavours and goodness and makes a wholesome lunch or light dinner. Following Jenna Hope’s advice I included some healthy fats with olive oil, almonds and avocado. Juicy English strawberries and sweet blackberries are the perfect match here for roasted asparagus, lentils and feta. You can skip the feta for a vegan version.
Disclaimer: This article and recipe are sponsored by Berry Gardens, Jubilee Selections and Sweet Blackberries. All thoughts and opinions are my own.