Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Every autumn, picking apples is part of our family traditions, a crisp day to get to a farm with sturdy shoes, big bags, and enjoy the autumn harvest. In 2020, the COVID challenge was to find a farm that didn’t require bookings and that was open to the public for Pick Your Own. I also wanted to update my list of Pick Your Own (PYO) Farms near London and chose to return to Hewitts Farm in Kent where I hadn’t returned since 2012 after visiting the house of Charles Darwin. Fortunately, Hewitts Farm had a no-booking policy and on the first Sunday of October 2020, they started offering PYO pumpkins and squashes as well as apples. My Halloween-o-meter was on high alert!
The ground was wet when we parked in the parking lot in Orpington, muddy puddles created by the previous days’ rains. At first glance, Hewitts Farm was a low key no thrills family operation, which was very nice in times of mega-farms with air-conditioned shops. Here, the farm shop was an open air area with metal-fenced rows of stacked crates and farm boxes, overflowing with acorn squashes, pumpkins, apples, and other autumn produce. If we didn’t find anything in the fields, the farm shop would certainly make us very happy. We were lucky to arrive when a family was leaving, dropping off two very handy wheelbarrows that we immediately borrowed to head to the fields.
Past the metal gate leading to the PYO area, we couldn’t see any signs in any direction and simply walked down the dirt road, hoping to bump into apple orchards. As the only one with rain boots, I purposely walked through every single puddle because it was so satisfying. Since we erred a bit, and to make it easier on everyone, I’ve mapped my recollection of produce by field.
My oldest daughter has always loved nibbling on fresh corn on the cob (rabbit style) but they’re not easy to find in London (or any big city). The best corn is always picked fresh and we were thrilled to start our autumn harvest in Hewitts Farm’s corn field. Super sweet variety.
My daughter had invited a friend who was picking corn for the first time and my friend Elina was also picking corn for the first time. I think that both were quite excited to find sizable ears of corn to pick and were surprised at how easily corn ears snap off the plant stem. It’s a very satisfying sound, that snap, and quite addictive too. After 10 or 15 minutes, I turned around to see the three of them with arm-fulls of fresh corn. I was also guilty of stacking corn like it was the last corn field on Earth. Good grief, what were we going to do with all this corn? Alice Waters’ cookbooks to the rescue, I suppose. The wheelbarrows just found a new purpose in life.
Over the hedge past a few more puddles, I spotted the pear orchard and ripe pears. As you know, juicy, sweet-scented, pears are no ordinary fruit and connoisseurs appreciate them above other autumn fruit but pears can be hit or miss when you buy them in the stores. Hewitts Farm grows three varieties of pears, Williams and Comice, the bulk being Conference.
Again, my oldest daughter is the pear lover in our family and she immediately set out to find more pears but the further we advanced in the orchard, the more we realized that all pear trees had been harvested. We were too late in the season for PYO pears. We’d bear that in mind for the future.
We crossed the full length of the pear orchard, past a tree hedge into the plum orchard (harvested too and too late anyway), and bumped into the pumpkin field.
Linus: “Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere. He’s gotta pick this one. He’s got to. I don’t see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.”It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
Sincerity was standing in front of us. Winter squash fields are some of our favorite autumn fields and very often, all you need to do is bend down and pick the pumpkin you like, as stems have already been cut by farmers. Not only are winter squashes beautiful to decorate one’s home, but they have great nutritional properties. Historically, winter squash has been used in some cultures as a medicinal plant to treat diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, high cholesterol, and inflammation. Harvard School of Public Health has the lowdown on winter squash.
At Hewitts Farm, most pumpkins were indeed ready to pick off the ground and as in the corn field, we were overcome by a harvesting frenzy. Why stop at one pumpkin when there’s an entire field in front of you?
When I say an entire field, Hewitts Farm grows 10 to 15 different varieties of pumpkins and squashes including Little Gems, President, Kabocha, white Halloween pumpkins, small Sugar pumpkins, Turk’s Turban squashes and more. To say that we were enthusiastic is an understatement. We were also thrilled to have wheelbarrows with us.
We were nearing an hour of farm exploration and hadn’t found a single apple tree yet, but the wheelbarrows were heavily loaded. As luck would have it, an opening through some trees behind the pumpkin field showed us specks of red. Apples! We’d found the apple orchard – at least one of them, as Hewitts Farm has more.
We often moan about the weather in England but the cool air and reliable rainfall make for perfect apple growing climate. Elina and I stepped through the apple orchard like it was a Christmas store and in awe at how heavily loaded the trees were. Row after row of trees, every branch heaving under the weight of ripe red apples like little red treats. It was apple heaven.
What varieties were there? The bulk of the apples were Orange Pippins, with a few Golden Delicious and the odd crabapple tree for cross-pollinating (and making jelly). Now, did you know that in England, Cox’s Orange Pippin is widely regarded as the finest of all dessert apples? Fun fact: ‘Pippin’ is an old English word derived from the older French word for pip (pépin). Taste-wise, Cox apples are my favorite English eating apple — tart and crisp, juicy and firm, they’re a good size in hand and make a great nutritious snack. Some apples were pretty high up on the trees, no match for a former basketball queen.
As you can see, picking apples can really give quite a spring in your step. After picking a full bag each, we remembered that we had a pub reservation for lunch and had to call it a day. We wheelbarrowed our loot back to the farm shop – which in itself was hard work – and once at the till, added a few bottles of apple and pear juice, fresh walnuts from France (delicious, if you’ve never tasted fresh walnuts), acorn squash (my fave small winter squash) and Bramley apples for applesauce.
On their Facebook page, Hewitts Farm announces their prices as
with discounts for buying in bulk. You may want to check prices for any changes when you get there. Anyhow. It was indeed very reasonable, considering we filled the car boot with our harvest. Back home, I washed dirt off my pumpkins and lined them up in a row on the windowsill before deciding what to do with them.
As for me, I’ve been eating 5 to 6 apples a day since our trip to Hewitts Farm and I don’t get tired of them. They’re just too good!