I could not resist them, piled high, all fresh and alluring, at my local West Ealing farmers’ market. They were, of course, Kentish cobnuts.
But such bounty is only a recent development according to Heidi Fermor, who, with her husband, runs 700-acre Perry Court Farm, situated between Ashford and Canterbury in Kent.
This autumn they plan to bring 20 to 30 tonnes into London’s farmers’ markets as a result of planting an extra 15 acres of cobnuts, filberts and hazelnuts five years ago. The new trees are fashionably dwarfed, planted eight feet apart, and will be 12 feet tall, compared with the original trees which are 20 feet tall, and need a ladder to harvest them. And unlike some crops this year, Kentish cobnuts have had a really good growing season, because they liked all that sun and no rain in mid-summer, as dampness can cause disease.
On the subject of harvesting, Heidi explains: “We’re lucky to have at least eight local women who have been with us for many years”– so unlike many other farmers who hire staff to harvest their crops, they don’t need an army from central Europe. Perry Court does now have two women from Poland, but they are permanently employed. There is a great skill in picking the cobnuts, says Heidi, because the picker has to know which nuts are ripe and be prepared to leave the others to ripen.
Perry Court sells through its own farm shop and farmers’ markets: a practical statement against supermarkets. “Often at the markets people ask us what the cobnuts are, and what they taste like,” says Heidi. “In fact, we give some nuts away to customers so they can discover what cobnuts are all about, and they always come back and buy some next time.”
But what does Heidi herself particularly like about cobnuts? “I like them when they are picked green and fresh. We do keep some of the crop, which then take on a darker colour so we can sell them right up to Christmas, but the season for picking only lasts for six weeks. They have this wonderful taste and I love them with cheese, or you can eat them with fruit.”
You will find Perry Court Farm represented at most farmers’ markets in London, certainly those I visit, and they don’t only grow and sell nuts. Heidi tells me that they grow no less than 130 varieties of apples and pears, and 20 varieties of plums, which also last into the autumn period. They also bring into the markets at this time of year those wonderful but quite rare fruits for jam-making; damsons and greengages.
Though Heidi attends many markets, I was assured she had a day off on Mondays. But I found her on that day in the farm shop, and she admitted that really she worked a seven-day week. Her enthusiasm was infectious. I reckon that’s the effect Kentish cobnuts can have on you.
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