Strange fruit

New high-street hybrids mean raspberries are bigger and better than ever
Time was when raspberries were in season only from July to September. Home-grown raspberries in December were unthinkable. Well all that's changed, and not just because of imports. The producers of raspberries have been busy in recent years coming up with new varieties to challenge the British weather: the modern home-grown raspberry season runs April to November.

Derek Jennings, formerly head of fruit breeding and genetics at the SCRI (Scottish Crop Research Institute), has had a long and illustrious career as a raspberry producer. Name a raspberry and odds are it'll be one of Derek Jennings's. All the Glens: Moy, Clova and Prosen are named after his favourite picnic spots. Joan Squire is named after his wife, and Terri- Louise after his granddaughter.

And it goes on from there. He invented the Tayberry. Just like Judge Logan 100 years before him, he took the finest blackberry of his day, crossed it with the finest raspberry and named it after a river in Scotland. Ask him about blackberries: "The Loch Ness is mine, I introduced spinelessness and a semi-erect habit."

To enter the topic of new varieties at all is to enter a minefield of controversy. Simon Brice of Mockbeggar Farm, who supplies Marks & Spencer, gets quite irate when he reads that consumers are being deprived of old varieties of raspberry: "It's absolute rubbish - these new varieties are far superior to the old varieties."

In fact, Simon Brice persuaded Derek Jennings out of retirement to set up an experimental breeding programme in Kent, both at Mockbeggar Farm, and Arnold Farm in Maidstone.

Each year, Jennings will produce hundreds of new varieties, a handful of which will be selected for propagation, and, after a couple of years' trial, those that have proved themselves worthy will be offered to the multiples, and breeding will begin on a commercial scale.

All varieties will have strengths and weaknesses: their ease of picking, their season of ripening, their shelf life. "You need to consider the cohesiveness of the drupelets that go to make it up, how firm the texture is, how strong the skin is," says Jennings. A raspberry may taste wonderful but bleed or break up when it's picked, if the constitution is wrong.

And then there's the colour. The redder the raspberry the better, in the eyes of the consumer. But beware: "A lot of raspberries take on a blueish tinge when they're very ripe," says David Jennings.

All this soft fruit creativity should come as no surprise - it's been berry bonanza in the supermarkets in the last few years, Marks & Spencer stores are leading the way with their own variety of specials.

The Terri-Louise, for instance, is a special raspberry exclusive to M & S that will sell from September to November: nearly double the size of a normal raspberry, it sports a perfect ruby red colour, and it's wonderfully tender, very juicy and fragrant and a good mix of sweet and tart. Having tasted my way through about 10 varieties, this was a favourite.

Duncan Macintyre, senior fruit technologist at M & S, says: "It's far harder to find a nice sweet raspberry than a strawberry. Raspberries can be really dry and sour."

This we know to our cost; the out-of-season offerings from places such as Chile and South Africa are often a variety called Heritage, grown for its durability in poor conditions - the result says it all.

And next time you think unkindly about British weather, bear in mind that it is raspberry-friendly. Long, cool days allow gentle ripening and a good flavour - whereas if it's hot, the fruit goes soft and seedy.

As to the future and what new berries might be on their way, Derek Jennings has a 10-year-old granddaughter who insists she should be a strawberry. So look out for Claire Maree.

Eton Mess, serves 4-6

An old-Etonian friend confirms that this is fact not fiction, although I've deviated from his recommendation to "mash it all up together".

I like my meringue the consistency of marshmallow inside a crisp casing; if you like it harder, then cook it for longer at a lower temperature, or you could buy some ready-made.

3 medium egg whites

6oz/175g caster sugar

134 lb/800g red berries, hulled

112 oz/40g icing sugar

2 tbsp raspberry eau de vie (optional)

squeeze of lemon juice

34 pint/400ml whipping cream, whipped

Preheat the oven to 140C (fan oven)/150C (electric oven) 300F/Gas Mark 2. Whisk the egg whites in a bowl until they have half risen. Gradually sprinkle the sugar over the egg whites - a couple of tablespoons at a time - whisking well with each addition, until the meringue is smooth and glossy. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spread the meringue to a thickness of 12"/1cm using a palette knife to 12"/30.5cm square. Bake the meringue for 45 minutes: the outside will be crisp, the inside soft. Allow it to cool.

While the meringue is baking, place a third of the berries, the icing sugar, the eau de vie (if you are using any), and the lemon juice in a liquidiser and puree: pass through a sieve into a bowl, taste and add more sugar or lemon juice as necessary. Mix the remaining fruit in with the sauce.

Select a deep 8"/20.5cm bowl. Break the meringue up into large pieces, and make two layers each of meringue, cream and fruit, ending with fruit. Chill until served. The meringue loses its crispness after a while, but it is still very good to eat