The season is ripe for picking berries
Every summer I promise myself, yet again, that I'll go raspberry picking. Then somehow the season slips past me. Fruit makes no concessions to delay.
But this year, here I am humming happily as I work my way down a row of raspberry canes in a field full of them. The sky is blue. The clouds billow like whipped egg whites. A scattering of other pickers are also at work.
There are children's voices on all sides. A grandfather calls out to his two charges: "What are you doing?" There is jocular suspicion in his voice.
"We're picking raspberries." (All innocence.)
"Picking or eating?"
The girl in the weighing shed had pointed me toward the raspberries - "over by that cottage there" - but she had added that they would probably be better next week. As I spoke to her, a lady with four cardboard baskets overflowing with strawberries plopped them down on the table. It looked as if strawberries were already ripe to the core.
"I phoned last week," I explained, "and the man said the raspberries would be better this week."
"Well, there are some," the girl said.
In fact, there were plenty.
There is nothing like picking raspberries. Among pickable fruit, they are the most enjoyable. They grow just about the right height, not requiring a kneeling pad or a ladder.
Plums, in contrast, demand a steady head for heights and canny skill in setting up and negotiating the ladder. Pears and apples demand a similar sense of dangerous escapade.
Strawberries, which don't know the meaning of tall, make themselves awkward in other ways. They are determinedly earthbound. The picker has to prostrate himself and even then must search under leaves to make sure the finest berries don't elude him.
Red currants hang in cascading, complicated, overripe bunches on the bush. You pull them off as best you can, but it's a messy, staining business.
Black currants aren't much more helpful. I got to know these difficult soft fruits at school.
Wild blackberries aren't easy to pick because the haphazard stems hook themselves onto you like the claws of so many anxious cats.
Thorniest of all, though, is a fruit that I have loved since childhood, even if fewer enthusiasts can be found for it today: the gooseberry. This round, veined, slightly hairy berry ripens on bushes protected by legions of prickles.
Even wearing gloves, you approach a gooseberry bush with caution. Then you take a gooseberry between thumb and forefinger, twist, and pull. Needles instantly attack you from every side.
But raspberries - not so thorny - are picker-friendly. Like blackberries, each raspberry has an inner core. Unlike blackberries, raspberries slip easily off their core, with no fight. So my basket started to fill surprisingly fast.
I noticed, coming down the row one over from "mine" (possession being nine-tenths of the law), a woman whose teenage daughter was picking along a row beyond her. They chatted with each other across the rows. After a while, the mother and I were opposite each other.
"It's like choosing a supermarket checkout queue, isn't it?" I said. "You always wonder if you've hit the best one. With fruit, you always think the next one probably has more and better fruit."
She laughed. "I know."
"There seem to be plenty for everyone, though," I added.
"Oh, yes. I'm three weeks earlier than usual. I have to get the jam made before our holiday. Without raspberry jam and pancakes, it won't be the holiday it should be. We meet up with my cousin's family. She makes the pancakes because I am useless at them. I make the jam. She can't make jam."
"Raspberries make the best jam in the universe, don't they?"
"We all love it."
We talked about what sort of sugar was best and how long you need to boil the jam. After a while, the two of them decided they had what they needed.
"Nice to meet you!" we all said.
Not long afterward, I saw that my basket was full, so I followed them to the weighing shed. I had picked seven pounds.
The girl weighed the fruit, but, I'm glad to say, not me. A friend told me how, years ago, she had taken her 5-year-old son raspberry picking. When they went to get the berries weighed, the man had said to the lad: "Just hop on the scales, son. I need to know how many you've eaten." Her boy stared solemnly at the man with round, worried eyes - until they all laughed at the joke.
I paid and headed for the car. Next to it, an entire family spilled out of their car. They were all smiling broadly, obviously pleased at the prospect of an hour or so of picking fruit. The women were wearing saris. The father of the family, beaming, looked twice at my brimming basket.
"Oh, what are they?" he asked.
"Ah. What do you do with them?"
"I make... " I began.
But his wife spoke sooner. "Jam," she said.
"You are picking strawberries?" I guessed.
"Oh, yes." More broad smiling.
This made me feel good. Fruit picking as cultural common ground. I like that idea.