The conventional wisdom is that English strawberries knock the spots off this foreign competition. We set out to test the truth of the contention, and to compare different varieties.
The most popular English variety is Elsanta which accounts for the bulk of strawberries sold in the UK. In the supermarkets, it's hard to find anything else at this time of year. Are more delicious varieties simply being ignored by the retailing giants in the name of bland conformity? Or is the Elsanta's reputation - a good looking fruit with an excellent flavour and a succulent texture which travels well - fully justified?
John Burton-Race, chef and proprietor of l'Ortolan in Berkshire, who takes pride in the quality of the fresh produce in his kitchen, helped us track down 14 varieties of strawberry grown in six different countries. A panel of tasters met at the restaurant to try them out. Generally, the quality of the fruit wasn't as good as it ought to have been because ot the dreary June weather. Sun is essential for bringing out the full flavour and sweetness of strawberries.
In our survey, we left out those varieties whose season is now over. The panel found some varieties - all grown in England - which it preferred to Elsanta, although samples of Elsanta bought at Marks & Spencer and Waitrose were almost as popular. But variety is just one factor that determines the quality of strawberries. The weather, and how and when they are picked, are also critical. Some are gathered when under-ripe to give them a longer shelf life, but this means the flavour will not be as fully developed. Packing and handling make a difference, too. In general, the panel found that small strawberries tended to be better: they were likely to have been passed over by the pickers at first, and left on the plant to mature for longer.
John Burton-Race, chef and proprietor of l'Ortolan restaurant, Berkshire; Michael Bateman, food editor of the Independent on Sunday; Sarah Beaumont, consumer affairs journalist. On this occasion, I myself, Stella Yarrow, joined in the tasting.
Panellists gave the strawberries marks for aroma, flavour (including the balance between sweetness and acidity), appearance and texture. They did not know what variety they were eating, or its country of origin.
***WILD STRAWBERRIES (FRAISES DE BOIS)
French; price varies from around pounds 4.50 to pounds 8.50 for 100g
These mini strawberries - about the size of a small raspberry, but more elongated in shape - looked enticing. Michael Bateman and John Burton- Race liked their aroma and taste. "Nice balance of acidity and sweetness," said Michael Bateman. The other two panellists were disappointed that these strawberries did not live up to their promise. Stella Yarrow said: "They looked very tempting and special, but they didn't taste of strawberry at all. Instead, they had a rather unpleasant taste. The pale, banana- ish colour of the flesh inside is disconcerting." Those in the know point out that, to bring out their full flavour and bouquet, these wild strawberies should be mashed into cream.
English; 90p a lb, pick-your-own
This variety, which originates in the Netherlands but was grown on a pick-your-own farm near l'Ortolan, was the panel's favourite. "Delicious, a great deep colour, a thick concentrated flavour," said Michael Bateman. John Burton-Race gave it higher marks for taste than any other strawberry, though he pointed out that it had a lot of seeds, was a little watery and had didn't have much aroma. Sarah Beaumont commented: "A bit pippy, strong flavour, beautifully sweet." This variety is reputedly very good for jam-making.
English; pounds 1.50-pounds 2 per lb
The panel enjoyed this English-grown strawberry, but felt that, with more sun, it would have developed a better taste. "Looks good, tight, compact fruit. Juicy, mild," said Michael Bateman. John Burton-Race commented: "Good appearance, perfume and texture, but could have been riper." The other two panellists were less enthusiastic. "Firm, smallish fruit, but lacks flavour," said Sarah Beaumont.
pounds 1.50 per lb
One of the samples of the ubiquitous English variety we tried was grown in Kent, which has been starved on sun this year. It is the variety most likely to be found in local greengrocers. Our panel, however, rated it worst of all, marking it well below the Elsanta bought in Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. "Watery, dull, oversized," commented Michael Bateman. "Nondescript," said Sarah Beaumont. John Burton-Race summarised them as "crud", saying they had little perfume, a fibrous texture and were very watery and sharp in flavour.
pounds 1.10 for 500g
These strawberries were rated a little better than the English Elsanta, but were still not very popular. "Squashy, not a good balance between sweetness and acidity," said Michael Bateman. Sarah Beaumont commented: "Good flavour, but could be sweeter. Slightly pale." Stella Yarrow described these as "Large, medium flavour. Not very red."
***MARKS & SPENCER ELSANTA
English; pounds 1.99 for 400g
The same variety as above, but a better verdict on this more expensive sample bought at Marks & Spencer, which claims to be the largest strawberry retailer in the country. Like the main supermarkets, it buys its fruit direct from growers, rather than from wholesale markets as greengrocers do. "Lovely, sweet, full flavour. Good size," said Sarah Beaumont. Stella Yarrow praised their flavour, but found the texture of some "mushy". Michael Bate-man was not so keen, however: "Large, tasteless, and sour," he commented.
English; pounds 1.09 for 250g, pounds 1.99 for 500g
Most panellists gave these a good report. "Good taste, slightly lacking in sweetness but a good flavour," said Sarah Beaumont. Michael Bateman particularly noted their sweetness. Stella Yarrow also liked them: "These strawberies had good flavour and sweet, medium sized berries."
English; pounds 1.50 per lb
This variety, grown in Hampshire, was given a generally favourable reception by our panellists. Sarah Beaumont particularly appreciated it: "Good, strong, strawberry flavour. Not too pippy. Sweetness just right." John Burton-Race wasn't convinced: "Good appearance, perfume not bad, though the taste is acid." Michael Bateman also had mixed feelings: "Good appearance, OK taste, but let down by texture."
**AMERICAN LONG STEM
pounds 1.80 per 14oz
These were mammoth strawberries, the size of a kiwi fruit, with a big leaf on top. They are usually bought for the catering trade. With strawberries, though, it isn't size that matters. "Huge, a good colour, but it's cosmetic only," said Michael Bateman. "These lack taste despite their sculptured looks." John Burton-Race said they had "little aroma, and a fibrous texture", while Sarah Beaumont slated them as watery and lacking in flavour - though they did have good texture, she added. Con-noisseurs point out that these are best consumed dipped in chocolate; but such Californian decadence comes at a price. At Marks & Spencer, half a dozen of these will cost you pounds 2.99.
Belgium; pounds 1.50-pounds 2 per lb
Watery was the adjective the panel unanimously applied to these. "Over- large, watery, poor balance of flavour. Looks ripe, but isn't," said Michael Bateman. "Looked lovely, but watery and flavourless," was Sarah Beau- mont's verdict. John Burton-Race liked their appearance and texture, but said they had an acid, watery taste.
STOCKISTS: Tenira: pick-your-own from Bloomfield Hatch Farm, Mort-imer, near Reading (01734 332540). Red wild strawberries (fraises de bois): from C A Belcher (01734 65921), or from Harrods Food Hall. Elsanta: widely available from supermarkets, greengrocers and market stalls. Red Gauntlet: selected greengrocers and markets. American Long Stem: some branches of Marks & Spencer. Pegasus: greengrocers.