Kitchen-garden diary: in praise of strawberries

Ameer Kotecha
·5-min read
Photo credit: NATALIA YANEZ-STIEL
Photo credit: NATALIA YANEZ-STIEL

Where to start with the strawberry? It is less a fruit than an icon. To eat bowls of strawberries and cream at Wimbledon; to pop open a punnet at a park picnic – these things are as quintessentially British as tea and queuing.

What is it that is so evocative and joyful about strawberries? They are synonymous with summer: they have about them something of the match tea, of alfresco eating and holidays. They feel like a very egalitarian fruit too – while a few kids might grow up with a taste for blueberries and loganberries, everyone knows what a strawberry tastes like. Their timing adds to their anticipation; the arrival of home-grown strawberries on shelves heralds the start of the British-fruit season after so many months of cold and wet and dreaded kiwis.

Strawberries have long been associated in literature with temptation and fittingly so, for who can resist them? It is almost impossible to find someone who doesn’t like strawberries. Or if such a person exists, they will scarcely admit it. What a miserable soul they would appear, not to mention rather unpatriotic and unromantic. They are a universal crowd-pleaser – not for nothing is the strawberry the only fruit to sit amongst such greats as vanilla and chocolate at the top table of classic ice-creams.

Strawberries are, like everything else, available all year round now, should you buy from the likes of Israel, Morocco, Jordan or Spain. But even setting aside the food miles, and the possibility of your punnet getting stuck in the Suez Canal, I find there is something particularly deplorable about getting a non-British strawberry, when the home-grown ones are so superior. Patience is a virtue, and you should wait until May for the early-season British fruit, grown under cover. They will often get better as the season goes on and they have had time enough to soak up the sun. Thanks largely to the breeding of new cultivars by the East Malling Research (EMR) centre in Kent – the epicentre of strawberry production – the traditional six-week UK strawberry season is now far longer, so we can gorge with abandon throughout the summer: on Pandora and Sweet Eve, on Sallybright and Judibell, or on any of the other 30-odd varieties grown in this country.

The horticulturalist George M Darrow was the world’s foremost authority on strawberries (a life well lived). He notes in his 447-page magnum opus on the strawberry that cultivation of the fruit began in Europe in the 1300s. The French were enthusiasts, though the plant was considered more ornamental for its flowers than useful for its fruit. King Charles V had his gardener plant no fewer than 1,200 strawberry plants in the Royal gardens of the Louvre in Paris. England too was “an early admirer of the strawberry”, although the species looked different back then – more akin to the teeny wild strawberries that continue to grow in English hedgerows and woodlands. It was not until the Virginia strawberry was brought to England from America and cross bred with the larger Chilean strawberry that the large berry that we are accustomed to today was born.

How to eat them? Strawberries are perfect with sweet pastry, such as in these simple little tartlets. For a teatime option, try this strawberry and pistachio olive oil cake. For dessert, this (gluten-free) sugar-cured strawberries with a white chocolate crumble or these dainty strawberry and elderflower fraisiers from Rukmini Iyer. You will often see recipes suggesting you marinate your strawbs in balsamic vinegar to bring out the flavour. It does work, and a little pile thus prepared goes perfectly with a vanilla panna cotta or simply with ice-cream.

Do not be scared of using them in savoury dishes too; they work very well paired with feta and thyme in this tart. And they can be used to great effect in vinaigrettes where they provide a little acidity in place of vinegar. Simply blend strawberries together with half olive oil and half sunflower oil, add seasoning and a little sugar, and serve drizzled atop sliced avocado for a Prue Leith classic.

And, of course, eat them in great quantity, with cream. The classic pairing is often attributed to Cardinal Wolsey, feasting as he lorded it up in Hampton Court Palace. Strawberries and cream was served up at the very first Wimbledon tournament in 1877. And chefs have sought their own twists on the dream pairing: Escoffier provides a number of variations on the combination in his Le Guide Culinair, including a recipe for Strawberries Romanov where the fruit is marinated in curaçao and served with Chantilly cream. For a British take, try this recipe where the strawberries are infused with Pimm’s and then flambéed. Or turn them into ice-cream. One of my earliest cooking memories is of carefully following Nigella’s recipe for homemade strawberry ice-cream: as she says, it is the taste of blue skies.

If you have any that are past their best, try this quick pickle with white balsamic vinegar or oven-dry them to create gummy fruits you can use in salads or just eat as a snack. And their use in libations is not limited to Pimm’s: try making a strawberry mojito when the barbecues start, or this strawberry-ginger lemonade for the kids.

“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.” So declared the 17th-century physician Dr William Butler, speaking of the strawberry. Never was a truer word spoken. They are a national treasure. Enjoy them.