Once the larder for London, the Chilterns’ are enjoying a revival of food fortunes with independent producers setting up their stalls across the hills.
I heard on the grapevine that pickers were needed to help bring in the Solaris harvest at Frithsden vineyard last month. 40 or so volunteers, including locals and “I missed it last year” regulars turned up on a beautiful autumnal morning in the tiny hamlet of Frithsden.
Located in the county of Hertfordshire, in the northern Chiltern Hills, about two miles north of Berkhamsted, the parish to which it belongs, it’s known locally as ‘Frizden’. One of my favourite Chilterns’ villages, the name is derived from the wood le Fryth first mentioned in 1291 as Frithesdene (valley of the wood). On the edge of the mighty Ashridge Estate, the road in and out is through this glorious woodland, which at this time of year is full of anxious, skittish deer liable to dash out into the road as the autumnal rut gets underway.
The Chilterns were once renowned for the extensive cultivation of cherries, and this hamlet once produced Cherry Bounce (commemorated in Cherry Bounce lane), but now this heritage fruit barely makes an impact on untended trees in nearby neglected orchards.
I have never picked grapes before, and the notion of spending the day picking in a vineyard I was familiar with, had great appeal. Before our equipment health and safety briefing from Simon – don’t leave the secateurs in the collection crates as they’ll be swallowed up by the machinery and everything will grind to an expensive halt, we tucked into calorie-enhancing breakfast of freshly backed scones and strong coffee – a breakfast worth cultivating – my feet already wet from the grass, showed me up as the harvest novice as I perused the range of stout and sensible footwear on display.
Grapes have been cultivated in England since the Romans were in town, and the chalky Chilterns soil is perfect for those brave enough to give it a go. And that’s what Simon and Natalie Tooley did when they discovered this site in 2005; the vines long gone, but that didn’t stop them planting 6,000 new ones. This story is repeated many times across the area, on smallish vineyards now producing good fizz and white wines cultivated in beautiful surroundings; nothing luxurious, just good honest wines from hard work and determination.
It was a pleasant experience and I worked quickly up and down the rows whilst the full plastic crates were collected and taken further down the slope to be de-stalked and crushed before the juice was piped into the fermentation tanks for nature to begin working its magic. Our tally of 94 crates was a respectable one, and they will be ready in April or May next year, so will be back then to savour the fruits of my labours.
The Chilterns have also enjoyed a craft beer revival in the past five years with micro brewerers popping up in Berkhamsted, Great Missenden and Aylesbury. The joy of doing it yourself is now spreading so hopeful soon launching new Chilterns wine and beer routes.
For further information on what to see and enjoy locally in the Chilterns.