Excellence, always: how Pat Clarke produces strawberries fit for a queen
Pat Clarke produces Irish strawberries of international renown. He tells Ali Dunworth how he became an “accidental entrepreneur” and the passion that goes into every punnet of strawberries. Partner content with Dunnes Stores Simply Better
Nothing quite says summer like an exquisite Irish strawberry. The first sight and smell of the bright, red, plump berries on menus and in shops signals the start of longer days, and although we can’t always guarantee summer weather in Ireland we know we’ll have gorgeous local strawberries to chop into breakfasts and desserts, perch atop cakes or simply enjoy fresh straight from the punnet, which is strawberry grower Pat Clarke’s favourite way to eat them. “Fresh, every morning”, as Clarke says. Strawberries were far from a daily staple though when Clarke first discovered the fruit. “In my early days people might only have fruit at the weekends; it was very special”. A second-generation farmer, he started out picking fruit locally in Stamullen, Co. Meath for pocket money in the 1960s when, he says, “all the locals had a small fruit farm to supplement their income”. Clarke’s entrepreneurial instinct kicked in early and realising the potential to increase his pocket money, he planted his own strawberries to pick and sell and within a few years he was selling his own fruit at the wholesale market. “So that’s how it would have started for me, I would have picked fruit for pocket money and then I decided to go out on my own,” he says. “Fast forward to today, we have Clarke’s Fresh Fruit and we’ve been in business for sixty years.”
The accidental entrepreneur now has a business that produces 75 acres of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries and employs over 170 people during peak season. Clarke’s are one of the country’s largest and best-regarded commercial fruit growers and they are proud to produce fruit that is literally fit for a queen – Pat Clarke’s strawberries featured on the 2011 menu served to Queen Elizabeth on her state visit to Dublin. They also continue to be a favourite of Irish chefs, including Neven Maguire, a fact Clarke never takes for granted. ‘It’s a fantastic honour for us,” he says, “to see chefs being impressed by what we do”.
Chatting to Clarke in the midst of a hectic June picking day it’s clear the passion he had for a pocket money project is very much alive to this day. Pat remains hands-on at the farm and hasn’t lost any of his enthusiasm for growing and selling fresh fruit. Passion, he believes, is the factor that sets his business apart. “You could go into ten different restaurants this evening and they might all have the same ingredients but they may not be all the same. What makes one better than the other? It’s passion and knowledge, and those things that add up to excellence. I’m a long time in the business and I’m still very passionate about what I do. We strive for excellence, always.”
That ambition for excellence has meant that growing the business and pushing things forward has been as much a part of his journey as growing the fruit. Innovation in particular has always been an interest of Clarke’s. “I would have always been doing global research and testing methods, checking what was out there,” he explains. He has travelled extensively and visited farms around Europe; “That’s how you get your information. I would have travelled always and looked to other farms and see what they were doing.” Back in the 1980s, his research led him to be the first person to introduce the Elsanta strawberry variety to Ireland and to this day it remains the most popular type grown in Ireland, although it’s not a variety he grows any longer. Today Pat’s preference is the Malling Centenary variety, a ‘June bearing strawberry’, which means it fruits naturally in the summer and, as he tells me, “It’s got a lovely shape, lovely flavour, lovely colour; it’s just a lovely fruit.”
Taste is always at the forefront for Clarke but part of his success is that he’s always had a holistic approach to farming, “Our goal is always to grow the most wholesome and flavoursome food but sustainability, that would be what we are about here on this farm.” So although changing his crop to Malling Centenary meant technically the yield may be lower than the more common Elsanta the increase in operational efficiency along with the fruit shape, size and quality makes up for the shortfall. “I chose Malling Centenary for their flavour, yes, but also because we would have 96% ‘class one’ fruit off that crop’. For the customer this means a better strawberry in your punnet. Clarke meanwhile says that his relationship with Dunnes Stores has yielded many a happy year. ‘I’ve been working with Dunnes Stores for over three decades and they are fantastic to work with, “ he says. “It’s a great honour for us to be chosen to supply to the Simply Better range. We would be Dunnes shoppers ourselves so it’s great to know our products can get easily into the hands of Irish shoppers all over the country.”
Sustainability mayhave become a buzzword of late when it comes to food and farming, but for Clarke it has always been at the heart of his business. “Sustainability has always been an important thing, it’s always been part of my programme to work with the environment and nature,” he says. He’s proud of the ‘cosy tunnels’ they use for growing that are scientifically designed to protect the fruit, of the solar panels used on the farm, and a commitment to natural and wildlife management and continual sustainability initiatives. Technology of course is an essential part of this, however it is people power that still ensures the best fruit is landing into your punnets. All of Clarke’s strawberries are stem picked, which means that the fruit is not touched even though it’s hand-picked; the stem is carefully nipped to avoid handling and bruising the fruit, so the berries stay fresher. “That takes quite a lot of time,” Clarke says, “you’ve to put a lot of training into your staff to get to that standard.” People are an essential ingredient in the whole process, he says. “The people are your engine, they are vital, it’s all labour-intensive what we do, there’s very little of what we do that’s mechanical,” he says. “We have a great staff that and they take pride in what we produce. When you produce food in that way the results are likely to be good all the time.”
With such obvious care and attention put into growing the fruit, I want to know what we need to do at home to make sure we’re eating our fruit optimally. “You need to treat your fruit like meat,” says Clarke, ‘Always store it in the fridge but make sure you take it out and allow it to get to room temperature before you eat it.”
After sixty years of growing, it’s incredible to hear someone still so enthusiastic about a business and hopeful for its future. “We’re very fortunate with what we do here,” he says. “We have a quality product that ticks all the boxes: it’s nutritious, it’s local, there are no air miles, it’s fresh and delicious. What more could you ask for?”
Why not try Neven Maguire’s beautiful take on lemon posset using Pat Clarke’s King strawberries?
Lemon Posset with Macerated Strawberries
4 Simply Better Handmade Irish Butter Shortbread, to serve
600ml Simply Better Irish Jersey Cream
100g Caster Sugar
Juice & Rind of 1 Lemon
1 Large Passion Fruit
1 Vanilla Pod, seeds only
For the Macerated Strawberries
1 Punnet of Simply Better Irish King Strawberries
1 Tsp Simply Better Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
2 Tbsp Simply Better Wexford
Blackcurrant & Lime Cordial
1 Tsp Vanilla Extract
1 Tbsp. Chopped Basil or Mint
1. To make the lemon posset, place the cream in a saucepan with the sugar, vanilla pod seeds, passion fruit seeds, lemon rind and juice. Bring to the boil and simmer for 2-3 minutes then transfer to a jug.
2. Pour into 4 stemmed glasses and place in the refrigerator to set overnight.
3. To prepare the macerated strawberries, quarter the strawberries and combine in a bowl with the balsamic vinegar, cordial, vanilla and mint or basil. Leave to infuse, overnight is best
4. To serve, spoon some of the macerated strawberries over the lemon posset and serve with a shortbread biscuit.
Pat Clarke’s Simply Better hand-harvested King Strawberries are on shelf at Dunnes Stores nationwide now