Strawberries: Bigger, but not better

With punnets of pale and flavourless fruit filling the shops, where can we find the soft and fragrant strawberries of our youth? Annie Bell investigates
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Is it just those rose-tinted specs? 1966: the football was better, some of us think the music was better, and strawberries actually tasted of something. We looked forward to that week in late June when the greengrocer would smell like a courtesan's boudoir, the heady scent of strawberries would hit you when you walked through the door, and they would be so plentiful and affordable that for a few brief weeks we could gorge on them with cream and sugar, after every meal, to our heart's desire.



The answer to some of this is yes. The football was indeed better, but there is no simple "yes or no" for strawberries. The answer is more complex. The starting point is the change in how we treat them. Whereas once we were happy to settle for apples, bananas and oranges as year-round staples of the fruit bowl, we now expect to be able to eat strawberries on a daily basis.



Before we start beating ourselves up about this, I for one put my hands up. With a 12-year-old going through a prolonged "fussy phase", who declines the vast majority of fruits offered, except strawberries, I would rather he ate hard tasteless strawberries than nothing at all. The fact that latterly he has begun to moan like crazy when they are sour and crunchy as a carrot mid-winter is something I encourage. It's a lesson in seasonality and I am confident he will soon be making the right choices of what to eat and when without any prompting.



But every summer when we go out to Normandy, the markets are filled with thin wood punnets with delicate scented strawberries, Mara des Bois and Gariguette, which have an intensity of flavour unmatched by any other strawberry. As I think back to some of the strawberries I will have bought in British supermarkets, during winter or summer, my heart sinks.



These French beauties are wild or Alpine strawberries captured in a fruit the size of an English summer variety. They are so delicate, however, collapsing in your mouth at the slightest pressure of your tongue, that even kid gloves will fail to prevent them from wilting before the day is out. And while here it is possible occasionally to find these varieties sold as a speciality, it is easy enough to understand why they would never tick the necessary boxes of retailers.



They are also, according to Phillip Symons, the buyer at Marks & Spencer, an acquired taste, and for some people too fragrant. "Every strawberry-growing country has a different taste profile, or preference for a type of strawberry." So while in France it is for these highly scented delicate berries, in Spain they prefer a crunchier berry, which accounts for some of the winter strawberries we have that are not to our personal taste. The US likes a very deep red berry, and we prefer something that is quieter in colour, red without being vulgar, soft without collapsing, a spritz of perfume rather than a smothering. In short, full of British reserve and restrained good taste.



That leaves me wondering how it is that a strawberry as dull as Elsanta, which has dominated the commercial sector for the past 20 years, and long been my bête noire, ever rose to the fore. Coming to its defence, Symons explains "it's not the variety itself, but how it's being grown". "Every variety has a maximum potential, but there is a big varietal within that. The principle culprit is when a strawberry is grown for high yield."



Incredibly, some 99.5 per cent of commercially produced strawberries today are grown under tunnels, so they receive all their water through irrigation, and as such it is easy to control the amount that the plants receive. By stepping up the water, the yield will be higher, and the resulting flavour proportionately poorer, but you will end up with a tasteless, watery strawberry. These production techniques are comparatively new, and so it's not surprising that we tend to think of the quality of our strawberries as having deteriorated. Growing for high yield is a modern practice. Despite this differential – and I would urge anyone to taste test a bargain-basement Elsanta strawberry against one from a better supplier such as Marks & Spencer – I still think this variety is on the dull side. The good news is there are some excellent, niche varieties of strawberry out there. But as a rule of thumb, they don't yield well, and this is reflected in their price.



Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, which both excel at fruit-growing, will have a range of strawberries during the summer, some June-bearers and others ever-bearers that extend the season. There are varieties worth looking out for, such as Jubilee (not only in Marks & Spencer; this is also Tesco's "Finest" strawberry). It rates at 10 on the Brix scale of sugar content, compared with Elsanta's eight, making it much sweeter and more flavourful. Sonata, Darselect and Sweet Eve are equally impressive: beautifully balanced, they are sweet and sour, soft and juicy, and perfumed.



All of these varieties are relatively modern, but this isn't necessarily a negative. Some of the older varieties have become prone to disease and are pesticide-resistant. There is a thriving industry supporting the development of new varieties, many of which are excellent. One difference for consumers to bear in mind is that retailers are bound by the keeping qualities of their strawberries while pick-your-own farms do not have to worry about this.



So this is where you will find more unusual and occasionally heirloom varieties such as "Hapil", field-grown to boot. At Calves Lane Farm, part of Copas Farms, in Iver, Buckinghamshire, the scene is of families bent double, shuffling through the straw between the rows of strawberry plants filling their baskets with berries warmed by the sun. This is as good as strawberries get – if you want to eat them then or the next day. So for the consumer who is passionate about the quality of their strawberries and doesn't want to part with the sums involved in buying the better strawberries from retailers, this is the answer.



Otherwise, just as we treat good meat and good cheese, the answer is to settle for less and less often. The best are still a treat, I would say even more so than in 1966.

ANNIE BELL'S STRAWBERRY RECIPES

Strawberry & clotted-cream cheesecake



This cheesecake sings with that great summertime marriage of strawberries and clotted cream, with a little extra something of some ginger nuts thrown in. A few strawberries folded through a slick of strawberry jam and spooned over a cheesecake is so much more alluring than those tasteless jellied layers that commercially produced cheesecakes tend to sport.



Ingredients to serve 6-8



Crust



150g gingernuts



60g unsalted butter





Filling



4 gelatine leaves, ie Supercook



400g low-fat cream cheese



200g golden caster sugar



1 tsp (half) vanilla extract



400g clotted cream





Sauce



200g strawberry jam



2 tbsp lemon juice



400g strawberries, hulled and quartered, or sliced if large





Method



Break up and whizz the gingernuts to crumbs in the bowl of a food processor. Gently melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat, tip in the crumbs and stir to coat them. Press these into the base of a deep 20cm cake tin with a removable collar to form the crust.



Cut the gelatine leaves into wide strips and soak in a small bowl of cold water for 5 minutes. Drain off the water, pour over another couple of tablespoons of water, submerging them, and stand the bowl in a second bowl of boiling water. Stir for a few minutes until the gelatine dissolves.





Place the cream cheese in a small saucepan with the sugar and gently heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture liquefies, and the sugar has dissolved. Give the mixture a quick whisk to get rid of any lumps. It should be warm, the same temperature as the gelatine solution. Beat the gelatine into the cream cheese mixture, and the vanilla extract, then transfer it to a large bowl. It should be lukewarm, if any hotter than this leave it to cool for a bit.





Add the clotted cream to the cooled cream cheese mixture and whisk together. Don't worry about the last few tiny dots of cream. Pour the mixture over the crust, smoothing the surface with a spoon. Cover with cling film and chill for several hours or overnight until set.





To prepare the strawberry sauce, gently heat the jam in a small saucepan until it loosens, then pass it through a sieve into a bowl. Stir in the lemon juice and leave to cool. Cover and set aside until ready to use. Remove the cheesecake from the fridge about 15 minutes before serving to let the crust soften just a little. Stir the strawberries into the jam. Run a knife around the collar of the tin and remove it, and serve the cheesecake in slices with the strawberries and sauce spooned over.







Strawberry Jellies



One of my default summer puds, even the sugar-shy or those who normally pass on this stage of dinner can find space for a small pot of red strawberry jelly.





Ingredients to serve 4





3 sheets of gelatine



900g strawberries



100g golden caster sugar



juice of 1 lemon



whipped cream (optional)









Method



Cut the gelatine leaves into broad strips, place in a medium-size bowl, cover with cold water and soak for 5 minutes, then drain.





Reserving 4 small strawberries for decoration, hull the remainder. Cut up if large. Liquidise these with the sugar and lemon juice, then pass the purée through a sieve into a small saucepan. Bring to the boil, then pour it into a measuring jug; you should have about 600ml of liquid; make up with water if less. Pour a little of this over the soaked gelatine and stir to dissolve, then stir in the remainder. Divide the jelly solution between four 150ml ramekins or other little pots and leave to cool. Cover and chill overnight. Serve decorated with a strawberry in the middle, with a spoon of cream if wished.





Gorgeous Cakes and Gorgeous Desserts by Annie Bell (Kyle Cathie, £14.99 each)

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