Article from Tommy's Lifestyle Magazine
Which berry isn’t a berry? The strawberry; a close relative of the rose (just like the raspberry) and now in season until February.
The list of ‘true berries’ is rather surprising. It’s easy to identify blueberries and gooseberries, but bananas, peppers and tomatoes? Really? They’re all formed from the ovary of one flower, with seeds embedded in their flesh. Whereas summer favourites like strawberries, raspberries and blackberries aren’t berries at all; they’re ‘accessory fruits’, developed from multiple ovaries of one flower with their seeds (200 per strawberry) on the outside. But that botanical insight won’t make any difference to my love of them – strawberries are summer in a mouthful.
In medieval times, strawberries symbolised perfection and righteousness; monks painted them to illuminate their manuscripts, and stone masons carved strawberry designs in churches and cathedrals.
People foraged for wild strawberries in the forest until the French began transplanting them into their gardens in the 14th century. Charles V, a medieval French king, had 1,200 strawberry plants in his royal garden; perhaps more significantly, he established a permanent, waged army rather than shanghaiing the unemployed to fight his battles; no wonder he was known as ‘Charles the Wise’.
In the 1700s, French horticulturists crossed a North American variety of strawberry with a Chilean one: the modern, garden strawberry was born. It soon became known as the ‘fruit of love’ because it resembled a plump, red heart. By the 16th century, strawberry farms were common in southern England – particularly Kent, long-considered the fruit bowl of England.
Cultivation became increasingly widespread; partly for medical reasons (the plant was used to treat depression), and partly because people loved eating them. Strawberries were traditionally sold in cone-shaped straw baskets (one of the earliest packaged foods), not that dissimilar to the folded newspaper ‘chips’ used by Greytown fruit farms in the 1960s.
The English strawberry season used to be alarmingly short by New Zealand expectations; 25 years ago it was only six weeks, now it stretches from May to October. As a new mother living in Kent decades ago, I was determined not to miss the season. I plonked my two-week-old baby boy in the middle of a strawberry farm (under shade, of course) while I picked a bucket of luscious red fruit and scoffed the lot. A few days later, my tiny son had developed hives; yes, I’d overdone the strawberries.
Strawberries and cream are a classic combo, a creation attributed to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey – Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor although it was more likely the inspiration of one of his cooks. Wolsey’s glittering rise to power (from butcher’s son to the second-most powerful man in England) was blighted by his inability to get Henry’s first marriage – to Catherine of Aragon – annulled. Wolsey was accused of treason, but died of natural causes (bowel issues, not cholesterol) before being tried. His legacy lives on: Wolsey built the magnificent palace of Hampton Court (later seized by Henry VIII) that had the largest kitchens in England, and his magnificent black marble sarcophagus was incorporated into Nelson’s tomb in the crypt of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, after lying empty for 300 years.
The English love affair with strawberries and cream continues; every year more than 25,000kg of strawberries are eaten at the Wimbledon tennis championships. Eton Mess is another English classic, served since the 1890s at the annual cricket match between Eton College and Harrow School: whipped cream, crushed meringue (a great way to use broken meringues), strawberries and a dollop of strawberry jam. Mess, incidentally, is an archaic word for a dish of food; not a reflection on the cook’s inability to make food look good.
My Scottish forebears preferred to eat them with freshly-ground black pepper which enhances the flavour and neutralises the fruit’s tartness; making strawberries sweeter and richer. You won’t taste the pepper unless you’ve a particularly heavy hand.
Strawberries don’t ripen after picking so can be eaten immediately; they stay fresher if not washed, and are best kept in the ‘fridge.
If you want to prolong the taste of summer, try making freezer jam. I’ve no idea why it’s gone out of vogue, as it was all the go back in the ‘80s (just like spinach salad). Because the fruit isn’t cooked, it tastes remarkably fresh: mashed strawberries, sugar and pectin (to help the mixture thicken). It’s really easy, there are lots of recipes on the internet but – with the glut of summer produce approaching, you may not have space in your freezer.