Ripe Pickings from Your Garden
Even the best-flavoured varieties of fruit will taste very ordinary if not harvested at the correct time. During ripening, acids in fruits become weaker, sugars accumulate and the aromatic compounds develop, to give their characteristic flavours. If you then pick too early, out of impatience or because you fear the birds will get the crop before you do, you finish up with fruit that is perhaps rather sour and almost certainly lacking in flavour. On the other hand, fruit picked too late lacks acidity, is oversweet and may have developed ‘off’ flavours.
Strawberries should be picked when the fruit has developed its full red colour but before it turns dull and soft. Raspberries, too, are ready for picking only when they have developed their full colour, are still firm and come away from the plug easily. Similarly their close relatives, blackberries and loganberries, should be picked at this stage but here the plug comes away with the fruit. Most blackberry and loganberry varieties have rather vicious thorns, but don’t wear gloves because picking fruits at the right stage is a delicate operation. Fruits hard won, taste even better.
These soft fruits do not all ripen together but over a period, perhaps of several weeks. Make sure you pick them over regularly, every other day is not too often.
From the point of view of picking, gooseberries are peculiar in that, for culinary purposes, they are often picked while still very under-ripe. Early varieties such as ‘May Duke’ are picked as soon as they have reached a respectable size usually during May and early June. Gooseberries for dessert use, however, are best picked when almost ripe but before they become too soft. They also have a tendency to split if a shower occurs as harvest time approaches, so deciding when to pick can become quite a nerve-racking affair. Currants, whether black, red or white, are not so problematic since they should be picked when most of the fruits on each string are ripe. Wait too long though, and some varieties, especially of blackcurrants will start to drop.
Of the tree fruits, cherries and plums are quite straightforward. They are ready when the skin has turned the characteristic colour of the variety and the flesh starts to soften and is sweet. Again, many varieties of cherries, particularly when ripe, will split in the slightest shower of rain so do not leave them on too long. If wasps are troublesome, plums can be picked a few days early — not before since flavour will be lost — and finished off under cover.
It is the picking of apples and pears that is the most difficult. Early and mid-season dessert apples, for more or less immediate consumption, are ready when they have attained their full colour and the flesh is softening and tasting sweet (a good excuse for regular sampling). Late-season apples and pears to be stored will not however reach this stage on the tree and will continue to ripen in store. Different criteria are used with these to determine picking date; the most useful is the ease with which the fruits can be detached from the tree. Each fruit should come away freely, if lifted slightly and gently twisted.
All fruits should be picked and handled carefully especially if they are to be stored. Soft fruits, cherries, plums and early apples will only keep for very short periods, but late apples and pears with care and given the right conditions can be kept for several months. Frost-free parts of sheds or garages are ideal for storage, where they should be placed in loosely folded polythene bags — these prevent shrivelling but allow the fruits to ‘breathe’. Inspect them regularly and discard any rotting ones.