M&S fruit farm visit.

I don’t think it’s just because I’m the wife of an arable farmer that I appreciate locally grown produce.

I basically just love good food!

And what could be MORE perfect than juicy, ripe seasonal berries??

I was asked by Marks & Spencer if we’d like to visit one of their suppliers’ farms to learn more about how Strawberries, Raspberries & Blueberries are grown. We eat A LOT of soft fruit in our family, so I jumped at the chance to learn more about them.

We popped down to Hall Hunter Partnership’s 500 acre fruit farm around an hour from us in Chichester on a sunny September Friday.

We were welcomed with a smile by Executive Assistant Anna Christian who introduced us to Harvest Manager Alana Deacon.

Both ladies were so friendly & eager to show us round. We set off for a tour of the farm, firstly stopping off at the vast strawberry tunnels. I’ve only ever been to pick your own strawberry farms, where fruit is grown on the ground surrounded by a ‘bed’ of straw, but this was completely different. The fruit was shoulder height(for easy picking) with a ‘fertigate’ tube system running the length of the tunnel in order to deliver the plants the perfect balance of nutrition or moisture as required.

When offered the opportunity to try a strawberry fresh from the plant(unwashed) I was surprised…but Alana reassured me that their fruit isn’t constantly sprayed with nasty chemicals(quite the opposite), & so I went ahead. Well, I can honestly say, it was the sweetest, tastiest strawberry I’ve ever eaten!!

The variety we sampled is grown especially for M&S, right here in England. As we walked along the rows & chatted, Annie was encouraged to pick her own strawberries, she soon got the knack of it & had a very pink face in no time!

Hall hunter partnership are able to grow soft fruit all year round. In the warm English summer months fruit is grown in polytunnels, where air can freely circulate. In winter, glasshouses ensure the crop is protected from frost & heavy rain. Alana told me that this summer, the UK’s record breaking temperatures have created the perfect growing conditions for the fruit, resulting in a bumper crop!

A dedicated team of ‘pickers’ work constantly throughout each day to harvest fruit, row by row, their speed was astounding! It takes some skill to pick efficiency without damaging the fruit, & the team had it down to a fine art. We watched them picking the best berries & leaving any which didn’t quite make the mark – on the plant – to me they all looked beautiful though!!

The fruit is then taken by trailer straight to a chiller to ensure optimum freshness, it’s then sealed in punnets, before it makes it way, within hours to the shelves of your local M&S food hall.

I asked Anna about how Blueberries are grown.

She told me ‘Blueberries differ from the other soft fruit that grows on our farms, because they grow on a bush that could live for up to 20 years’(who knew?!)

‘During the first year we don’t pick any berries, instead we pick all of the flowers off. We do this so that all of the energy that the sun gives the plants can go into the generation of a strong plant, with the specific structure we want.

Once the plants have grown to 50cm tall they are pruned back to 20cm to create a strong base for future years. In the second year, we allow some flowers to set and harvest about 800 grams of blueberries per plant. After fruiting, they are pruned again – whilst trying to maintain the shape of a wine glass.

Going forward, it is the same routine year after year, flowering, fruit, picking and pruning. As the plants get bigger and more mature, they produce larger, more flavourful berries’.

Our experience at the farm has definitely made me think more carefully about my choices in the future. I’d rather not be eating produce which has clocked up thousands of air miles & left a heavy carbon footprint. Whether it’s flowers from an honestly stand you’re buying, or veg from your local farmers market, we’re so lucky to have the best of every season here in the uk. And wonderful flavoursome produce to prove it!

Read on for recipe inspiration!

We were asked if we’d like to make a couple of recipes using M&S ingredients. I chose blueberry & lemon muffins, and a raspberry & white chocolate tart. The blueberries were incredible-I mean, I hate to admit it, but I’ve always thought blueberries were kind of a pointless fruit, they’ve never tasted of much?-but these were on another level. Firstly they were huge, like, bigger than my thumb nail, secondly they were full of flavour and not one of the ones I sampled was sour. I’m a blueberry convert!

{Blueberry & Lemon Curd muffins}

Ruby & Annie have always baked together, so I thought the muffins might be a great treat for them to work on. What I didn’t realise was just how simple the process would be!! A real ‘chuck it all in’ recipe, perfect for the novice baker, with a super tasty end result.

These delicious muffins are best served warm and fresh from the oven(ie I can’t wait for them to cool)…perfect for a breakfast or a teatime treat(or both!).

Makes: approx 10

Prep time: 15 minutes Cooking time: 20 minutes

What you will need:

100g butter

200g blueberries

250g self rasing flour

1 tbp bicarbonate of soda

100g caster sugar

Zest of 1 lemon

2 free range eggs

150 ml semi skimmed milk

10 tsp lemon curd

6 tsps Demerara sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 220c/200c fan/gas 6. 2. Line a deep muffin tin with paper cases.

3. Place the butter in a small pan and melt, allow to cool for a few minutes.

4. Wash the blueberries and pat dry, toss in a little flour.

5. Sift the flour and bicarbonate of soda into a large bowl. Stir in the caster sugar, blueberries and lemon zest.

6. Beat the eggs, add the milk and melted butter, mix together and pour into the flour mixture. Mix together quickly and lightly, the mixture should still look a bit lumpy.

7. Divide between the muffin cases, make a little indent and place a teaspoon of lemon curd on the top of each one, sprinkle with the demerara sugar.

Bake for approx 20 mins until risen and golden. Cool for at least a few minutes before enjoying.

{Raspberry & White chocolate tart }

If you fancy a dessert which looks a million dollars but is quick and actually really easy, this ones for you…

White chocolate lends itself perfectly to raspberries, and the M&S Swiss white chocolate had a caramel like quality to it, which tasted so luxurious, one slice was definitely not enough-it was so moorish!

Serves: 6-8

Prep time: 20 minutes (plus 30 minutes resting time for the pastry and 1 hour for dessert to set in the fridge)

Cooking time: 20 minutes

What you will need For the pastry:

110g plain flour

55g unsalted butter, cut into 1cm cubes

For the filling:

400g white chocolate

200ml double cream

50g unsalted butter

1⁄2 tsp vanilla extract

400g raspberries.

1. Make the pastry by whizzing the flour and butter in a food processor to form fine crumbs. Add just enough cold water to bring it together, just two or three tablespoons should do it. Wrap in cling film and allow to rest in the fridge for 20-30 minutes.

2. Preheat the oven to 190°C/Gas 5.

3. Lightly grease a 23cm tart tin and roll the pastry into a circle big enough to line it. Don’t worry if it cracks a little, just patch it up in the tin using a little water if you need to stick it together. Prick the base all over with a fork, line with baking paper and baking beans and bake blind in the oven for 20 minutes until crisp. Remove the pastry case from the oven, take out the baking beans and allow to cool completely while you make the filling.

4. Make the filling by breaking up 350g of the white chocolate and adding to a heatproof bowl, along with the double cream, butter and vanilla. Set the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and allow the chocolate and butter to melt, stirring frequently until you have a thick shiny sauce. Pour into the baked and cooled pastry case and put in the fridge to set firm, about an hour.

5. Once set, remove from the fridge and decorate the surface of the tart with the fresh raspberries, either in a pretty pattern or randomly, as you like. Melt the remaining white chocolate in a small heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. Using a teaspoon drizzle the melted chocolate over the raspberries.

Serving suggestion: a best friend & a fork each.

I hope you enjoyed this post, thank you for reading.

I love to read your comments so please do feel free to chat, either here or on instagram!

Love Kirsty xxx

*this post is sponsored by Marks & Spencer but all words and opinions are my own.

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