When I was growing up in New Zealand every time it was berry season my parents would drive us a short distance to where the berry farms were located. We’d look for signs saying, ‘Pick Your Own’ and we’d turn into those driveways and spend a few hours filling buckets with raspberries, blackberries, loganberries and my favourite, boysenberries. It was a day I loved and certainly, with ruby-red stains around your mouth it was obvious you ate about as many as you collected.
Moving across the Tasman to Sydney (where the climate was warmer and there was none of that cold weather necessary for a thriving berry cane), put a stop to our berry picking days and they became a thing of the past.
But berries are now being grown not just in cooler climates like Tasmania, but also in places not far from Sydney like the Southern Highlands. The two berries most commonly grown in Australia are raspberries and blackberries. These are grown in Southern Queensland, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania. Different varieties are grown to allow for the berries to be picked for a longer period of time. Raspberries are now available year-round with a peak season throughout summer, while you start seeing blackberries around Christmas time and on until late March.
A few weeks ago I was delighted to be invited to once again experience berry picking. Along with other media, I was picked up in a mini-bus and off we went to Sutton Forest in the Highlands. It was a very hot summer’s day but it was a clean, dry heat, not the sticky humidity we endure in Sydney.
Montrose Berry Farm sits on land that was once a long-running sheep station. The centrepiece of the property is without question, the circa 1861 heritage-listed homestead that’s situated amongst established flowering gardens and accessed by a tree-lined gravel driveway that winds its way from the impressive iron gates to the homestead.
The berry farm is just a 90-minute drive from Sydney and when in season, the public is invited to come and ‘pick your own’. There is a modest entry fee and this includes 500gms of fruit. After that, you pay for the fruit you pick by the kilo and it is very good value compared to prices paid in stores.
Montrose Berry Farm is owned by farmer Bruce Robertson and his wife, Fiona, a professional chef. On their farm they have a full range of berries including blueberries, red raspberries, loganberries, boysenberries, autumn raspberries and red currants. They also grow hazelnuts and have a variety of fruit trees.
The berries are grown without the use of pesticides however, a few herbicides are used. All the berries are handpicked and the Robertsons employ backpackers to pick the berries. Depending on the conditions the backpackers will start very early in the morning, take a break during the heat of the day, then continue picking until the sun goes down. The berry pickers are paid not by the hour but by how many buckets they fill so you want to be quick with your work.
We walked the short distance from the homestead to the rows of blackberries. Blackberries and raspberries look very similar until the blackberries begin to darken. However the major difference between the two berries is that blackberries have a white core while the raspberry has no core.
Blackberry season was coming to its end and so the rows of canes weren’t looking their best however, there were still plenty of blackberries and the ones I picked were plump, ripe and extremely sweet. Unlike wild blackberries, these canes have no thorns so picking them isn’t a hellish experience. I found picking my own berries to be very enjoyable, quite relaxing and an extremely welcome break from a day at the office.
Montrose Berry Farm makes a range of quality products you can purchase from the on-site shop. There are berry vinegars, jams, chutneys and jellies. The partnership of farmer and chef is an excellent one with Fiona using the berries from their farm to make beautiful pies that have the most wonderful melt-in-the-mouth pastry. We were welcomed onto the property with a just-baked mini raspberry pie served with whipped cream.
I’m so thrilled fresh berries are becoming more readily available throughout the year. They are excellent to enjoy just on their own and often after a day of school, Alfie and I stop by the fruit shop and buy a punnet or two of berries and the little guy eats them on his way home.
It’s not a good idea to wash them but you can rinse them gently just before eating. To keep them at their best, store in the fridge and bring to room temperature to serve. If you want to freeze fresh berries, it’s best to spread them out on a tray then freeze and when frozen, store in zip-lock bags.
At Montrose Berry Farm, it’s not all about the berries. This historic estate is also the scene where many weddings take place. In fact, the property is so popular there’s a wedding at least once a week. One of the attractions to having a wedding at Montrose (apart from the stunning setting, the beautiful venue that seats 100, and Montrose Cottage where the bride and groom can stay on site), is that you can self-cater allowing you greater control over your budget.
With its very distinct four seasons, the Southern Highlands has much to offer a tourist, however, if visiting Montrose Berry Farm I would recommend being there when it’s the season to pick your own berries. Driving back home with a box full of freshly picked berries and contemplating how you will best enjoy them is a wonderful experience.
Montrose Berry Farm: Ormond Street, Sutton Forest NSW 2577
Ph: 02 4868 1544