Food & Drink: Fruit pickers are just too picky

The sun is out, Wimbledon's nearly here, and once again we're dreaming about ripe, red strawberries. But are today's limited choice of varieties worth our nostalgia? By Annie Bell
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It's that time of year again when, come rain or come shine, we will staunchly don our finest linens and diaphanous dresses, put on hats that will blow away in the wind, and crawl into heels that will sink into the mud surrounding marquees set up to shelter spectators from the sports of boat-racing, horseracing and tennis. Here, comfort will be found in half a pint of Pimms and poached salmon divested of its silvery skin and re-armed with a spine of cucumber slices. Our eyes will cloud over to the tune of Land Of Hope And Glory until, unable to bear it any longer, we will dive with a spoon into the nostalgia of a bowl of strawberries and cream.

It is always possible, of course, that the sun will shine and your heels won't sink in the mud. But if this is the case, you'll have to pay more for your strawberries. It's the law of supply and demand: when Wimbledon has us shielding from an alien sun under knotted handkerchiefs, our appetite for strawberries grows.

I would like to believe that this is because we know, innately, that they are much better during fine weather. How your strawberries taste owes everything to the few days before picking.

It goes something like this: sugar - which in a strawberry has everything to do with its flavour - comes from starch, manufactured in the leaf through photosynthesis. When the weather is horrible and overcast there is comparatively little activity compared to when the sun is blazing and the leaves are bustling with energy. So the moral for those who care to plan every meticulous detail when menu-planning is to look back over the week's weather.

If only it were that simple. As we know to our cost, the weather may have been glorious and you will still end up with a duff punnet of strawberries. They are delicate objects which do not take to being picked too early, when they will be hard and sour. Nor do they take to being picked too late when they will be overly red and jammy. The art of the picker has as much to do with their quality as variety.

Speaking of which, my local greengrocer, Michanicou in Holland Park, bemoans the passing of older varieties. "We never see Red Gauntlet any more, it's all Elsanta." And it really is all Elsanta; try asking for any other variety and you will be treated like a trainspotter hoping for a sighting of the Flying Scotsman on the Paddington to Reading line. Not all buyers, however, mourn this state of affairs. Duncan Macintyre, a fruit technologist at Marks & Spencer thinks nostalgia has a habit of colouring our vision. "When I came on the scene, Cambridge Favourite was big, but I remember it as being awful, it had no flavour and it wasn't productive. Old varieties may fill a niche but they're not economic for growers."

I agree with Macintyre that the business of variety can be a red herring. You can find an Elsanta strawberry that will have been expertly grown and picked at the right time, from an area where all the conditions and the soil suit it perfectly, and it will be superb. Another Elsanta, poorly tended and picked at the wrong time, or else grown in an area where it doesn't suit the soil, will almost certainly disappoint, while another variety would fare better. "You can never rule out any variety as being bad," says Macintyre, "because someone, somewhere, is bound to be growing it perfectly." Variety is a good indicator of character but unfortunately doesn't guarantee flavour.

Nonetheless, it would be nice to see a greater choice of varieties on the market. Elsanta was developed in Holland some 18 years ago. It's economical to grow, has a good shelf-life, boasts a healthy glossy skin and it's sweet. Arguably, though, it's also pretty bland. One Kentish fruit grower, Peter Vinson, who conducts plant trials as a sideline, is critical, not of its quality, but of its limitations. It is what is referred to by growers as a "short daytime crop", which means its natural cropping season is restricted to just six weeks. To extend Elsanta's season, growers rely on artificial techniques, such as freezing the plants over the winter.

In avoiding these artificial techniques Vinson has produced a variety which naturally crops later in the season. He has just launched this new variety, called Everest, which we should have the opportunity to taste later this summer when it will be stocked by most of the multiples. Everest is more acidic, with a good deep flavour, but it also has a firmer flesh which we may or may not take to as consumers. We like our strawberries to be soft and juicy, one of the reasons the harder Californian varieties grown in Spain come in for such stick. Not to mention the fact that they have to be picked three days before they are ripe to allow for their journey across Europe. When greengrocers moan that English strawberries don't keep as well, what they really mean is that they are picked riper, harvested one day and in the shops the next.

A far more important war than variety being waged within the industry is that of class. Something like 80% of strawberries are rejected by the multiples on the grounds of being too small, and graded as class two. These tend to be offered to independent retailers whose buying power is insignificant by comparison. The fact that their flavour and eating quality are the same as class one strawberries is by the by. So all power to Asda which has just announced it is dropping its grading system this season. Punnets will be filled straight from the plant in the order in which they are picked, which will not only reduce the damage inflicted by handling and sorting, it will make them cheaper. If we really want strawberries like they used to be, then we need to embrace their many quirky shapes and sizes. The industry will be watching Asda's initiative with interest. I hope Asda finds it hard to keep up with demand for its strawberries. It might just persuade the other multiples to follow suit, at which point the competition with local greengrocers will once again be fair.