NO-ONE will be studying the weather forecast more this weekend than Scotland’s strawberry growers. More than a third of the UK’s soft fruit production now originates north of the Border, with an estimated annual value to the Scottish economy of £94 million.
With 21,500 tonnes of strawberries picked last year, it’s big business – but not for those of a nervous disposition.
This week is crunch week, largely thanks to the Wimbledon factor. If the sun shines and it stays dry, sales boom.
Last year was tough, with a summer more suited to syrup sponge than strawberry tart. This year, a slow start pushed the growing season back a couple of weeks but supply and demand are now in tune and all the indications suggest this is going to be a good year for strawberry sales.
From experimental beginnings, the development of the railway network helped Scotland’s strawberry industry grow. A century ago, Ormiston in East Lothian was a centre for soft fruit production, with daily railway deliveries to Edinburgh in summer. But the sheltered countryside of Perthshire and Tayside proved the most suitable climate for strawberry production and so it remains to this day.
Twenty years ago the whole industry seemed doomed thanks to cheap imports from Spain and north Africa. New growing techniques, and the growing appetite for seasonal and local produce, helped turn things around.
Along the way, the need for investment has consolidated the industry in the hands of bigger businesses. On top of that, 80 per cent of production is for the supermarkets and that requires large-scale logistics and delivery systems to deal with the limited shelf life of the fruit.
Angus Growers are a cooperative of 20 farms, making dealing with the multiples easier. Similarly, Bruce Farms supply to the supermarkets under the Scotty Brand label to maximise freshness and market reach.
Behind all the growing and marketing is the exquisite taste. I’ve yet to meet a person who doesn’t like a strawberry. Not a Moroccan specimen, airfreighted here in February, but a real Scottish strawberry, grown slowly and allowed to ripen until full of flavour.
A few years ago I ate only Scottish produce for a year, as an experiment. A consequence of that was no fruit, until one day someone offered me the first Scottish strawberry of that summer. Nothing since has tasted that good.
Right now, we are still in the early days when their reappearance on the shelves is still a novelty. In a few short weeks we will begin to take them for granted and they will start to pop up in cheesecakes, pavlovas and jams.
Then, at the end of September, they will be gone, the leaves will start to turn and the temperature will fall.
But that’s a long way off so enjoy the Scottish strawberry while you can. It’s the ultimate sign of summer.