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Strawberries in winter? Welcome to franken-season

Producers and supermarkets are weakening our link with the natural world
  • @janemerrick23

In the claustrophobic depths of winter, when it has been raining for days on end and the light melts away in mid-afternoon, it is hard to remember how summer feels. It seems impossible to imagine that thing most associated with the British summer – the smell and taste of the first strawberry of the season, ripened and warmed in sunshine.

But from next year, according to Sainsbury’s and Wellings Nursery in Essex, we will have to imagine no longer. British strawberries will be on supermarket shelves in December, so we can eat them with our Christmas pudding and turkey. So we can not only enjoy them as we watch Andy Murray at Wimbledon, but also as we vote for him on the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year.

How? Because researchers have been able to grow strawberries in mid-winter using a combination of blue and red LED lighting, which tricks the plants into thinking it’s spring. Such lights artificially extend the hours of daylight in the nursery’s greenhouses, and plants that would have died back in autumn carry on producing fruit through the winter. The goal, says Peter Czarnobaj, product technologist of soft fruit at Sainsbury’s, is “to offer our customers a British strawberry all year round”. The result will be 30 tonnes of extra fruit, worth £100,000, ripening for our shelves – that’s going to need a lot of cream.

As much as I try to wring every last drop of light and warmth out of the year for my fruit and vegetable growing (as I write, there are some broad bean plants fighting for life as they shelter from the rain and gales under a cold frame), the idea of British strawberries in winter appals me, and it is not just because those weaned under glass or a polytunnel (in either summer or winter) are a bland, mushy imitation of those that are ripened under the sun.

It also shows how producers and supermarkets are furthering our disassociation from the seasons and eroding our ability to enjoy food that grows naturally in different months of the year. By pandering to an ever-tasteless (in more ways than one) palate, the food industry is not celebrating British produce but helping to kill it off. Giving consumers British strawberries at all times weakens our link with the changing year, turning us even further away from seasonal, less popular fruits like damsons, quinces and plums that are naturally ripe and juicy in winter. Sainsbury’s is striving for the “goal” of the year-round strawberry, but production in apples native to Britain – like Cox’s Orange Pippin – has halved since 1985. Again, this is because producers and supermarkets want to pander to consumers’ tastes, allowing less distinctively-flavoured apples like Golden Delicious (a mis-named variety if ever there was one) to dominate supermarket fruit sections.

I accept that British summers are often wet and cold, meaning many of the strawberries available in supermarkets are already grown under glass or plastic. Does the winter-grown strawberry really make any difference, then? In a way, it does not – but the point is that both would not produce the incomparable taste of a sun-ripened strawberry.

I accept that, as the outgoing National Farmers Union president Peter Kendall said in his new year’s message, the British food industry needs support. But wouldn’t it be more sustainable for food and farming to focus efforts on production of seasonal crops? As the expression goes, we should sip, rather than gulp, our pleasures. We may have to wait months for the taste of a true, sun-ripened British strawberry, but it is well worth the wait.

Learning to cook? One pledge worth sticking to

One day into 2014, and I wonder how many new year’s resolutions have already been cast aside? If I were to look at my list of supposed commitments from 20 years ago, I am sure it would be the same as the one I should have written this year, with losing weight at the top.

There seems to be no point in making a list at all, because the year will only end in  failure. So instead, this time, rather than vowing to give things up, perhaps we could all pledge to take up something new? Missing out on things seems so negative; adding to our own box of tricks is far more positive.

For me, I am, after 40 years of  relying on those I live with to cook for me, and inspired by a pasta-maker I got for Christmas, going to learn how to do it myself. Damson ravioli, anyone?