FOOD & DRINK / Superfruit: Move over old strawberries, the Elsanta is here. Born in a laboratory and raised using a technique that ignores seasons, science's new breed is soon to fill our supermarket shelves. But is it any good? Michael Bateman reports

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The Independent Culture
STAFFORD Whiteaker's The Compleat Strawberry, the definitive guide to the fruit published eight years ago, is compleat no more. It does not include among its comprehensive list of the world's great strawberries the name of the most successful of all time, Elsanta.

This is not due to the carelessness of the guide's author. Eight years ago Elsanta was but a gleam in the eye of a Dutch lab technician, one of many thousands of strains developed each year for horticultural trials. Then, five years ago, it was offered to commercial growers and, already, this year Elsanta will comprise 80 per cent of the English crop.

So it's not just goodbye to the old classics, such as the Victorian beauty Royal Sovereign, but it's goodbye to recent benchmarks of excellence. The thoroughly modern Cambridge Favourite is suddenly Yesterday's Strawberry.

This is no time for sentimentality. Cultivated strawberries don't hold a candle to the wild strawberry for fragrance (the strawberry's botanical name is fragaria), but of the cultivated varieties Elsanta is superior in every way. It is a sensationally bountiful strawberry, large, firm, scented, of brilliant colour, and bursting with flavour. Elsanta's good looks are more than skin deep, and effectively supplant those out-of-season varieties imported from Spain and Italy and elsewhere which have cosmetic appeal, but are watery and insipid in taste.

Marks & Spencer was first to spot the commercial potential of Elsanta. Two years ago the company told growers it intended to buy no other variety - a powerful incentive, since M & S buys pounds 1 1/2 million-worth from a single grower in the space of a few months.

M & S was so impressed by Elsanta's performance that it also persuaded some growers to invest in the high cost of cultivating them under glass. So, this year the first English strawberry was sighted about the same time as the first cuckoo of spring, in April, and sold at the cloud cuckooland price of pounds 2.45 a punnet. The price dropped (not that much) to pounds 1.99 a punnet this month.

This week the first of the new season's Elsantas grown outdoors in plastic tunnels will enter the marketplace. The main crop, grown in the fields, ripens in mid-June. Usually, the season climaxes at the end of the Wimbledon fortnight, in early July, and apart from access to late season Everbearers, the gardener's choice, we would normally return to buying imported strawberries. But not this year.

Trusting to the success of Elsanta, Sainsbury's is backing a costly scheme to extend the English outdoor growing season to the end of August. The strawberries are being grown to the dictates of a new technology, except there is nothing new under the sun - and frost certainly isn't. Young strawberry plants are dug up in the winter when dormant and put into cold storage, mimicking a frosty spell. The grower can interrupt this artificial sleep when it suits supermarket marketing schedules, and can stagger planting accordingly. The plants leap into life, throw out a bushy head, burst into pretty white flowers like the wild rose (the strawberry is a member of the rose family) and set their fruit only 60 days after replanting. Why hadn't anyone thought of this before?

I saw the first of this season's Rip Van Winkles being woken from their long winter slumber in Kent last week, at the 350-acre farm of William Pierce, chairman of Kentish Garden, a strawberry growers' co-operative. Mr Pierce's family has been farming in this picturesque corner of Kent since 1750. It is as much of a come-on as a 'Come to Britain' poster. Orchard Place Farm is buried in gentle folds of downland, clothed with orchards of blushing pink apple blossom, Cox's Orange Pippin and Bramley. Little lambs gambol in gaps in the hedges of snow-white May blossom. At every turn painterly scenes compose themselves, oasthouses, hopfields and, um, fields covered in plastic sheeting.

Modern technology means rows of black plastic, used to conserve moisture (in effect a mulch); flimsy 12-metre-wide sheets of fine green plastic, drilled with holes like a sieve, insulating tender young plants against extremes of climate; and transparent heavy-duty plastic stretched over substantial metal frames, called French tunnels, where early outdoor strawberries ripen.

Today they are taking out the first of the 'waiting' plants from cold storage. Some 12,000 little green plants, dug up in November and December, have been packed into 42 green supermarket boxes (plastic, naturally) and are thawing out from their long winter sleep - at -1 degree Centigrade. Those on top are green and raring to go. Underneath, they are coated with white frost.

Growing isn't a problem, explains Mr Pierce, as they grew two acres successfully last year. The real risk is whether the public believes, as Sainsbury's hopes it will, that it is worth paying a bit more for a strawberry that not only looks like a strawberry, but tastes like one. The technology involved, such as the acres of plastic, is expensive. The sophisticated level of packaging which supermarkets demand today costs Mr Pierce's company pounds 100,000 a year. His bill for metered water is pounds 15,000 a year.

To sustain the plants at the height of summer he has to provide drip-feed irrigation to take water and liquid fertiliser to each plant, and he uses sprinklers which start into life for a 30-second burst every time a moisture indicator says the ground surface is drying out. 'Watering them alone costs pounds 200 an acre,' explains Mr Pierce. 'And it costs pounds 600 an acre to put in the polythene and plastic irrigation tubes. The investment costs for strawberries are four times the value of the land itself.'

For a grower, Mr Pierce has uncomplicated ideas about eating strawberries. 'I like them dipped in sugar because I have a sweet tooth. The sweetest strawberries don't really come until the end of the season.' I prefer the cultivated variety with lemon juice, or sour cream or smetana, or a sour cream cheese such as mascarpone, which gives an acid edge to lift the smooth sweetness of the berry.

Strawberries with thick cream is the nation's idea of a treat (first popularised by Cardinal Wolsey, it seems, who served them at a feast in 1509, but they would have been wild ones, or wood strawberries). Today, strawberries are the essential ingredient in dozens of summer desserts, strawberry shortcakes, strawberry fool, marvellous ice-creams and sorbets, sauces and coulis, jams and jellies, fruit cups. They are beautiful as chocolate treats, immersed in melted white chocolate, then left to cool on non-stick baking paper. Dip the tips in melted dark chocolate, and serve them chilled.-

(Photograph omitted)