Strawberries: false fruit with many secrets that will enrapture your senses
There are more than 600 varieties of strawberries and they are botanically not berries at all, while eggplants, tomatoes and avocados are berries, gotcha! The sheer diversity popping around me from Denmark though France, Germany, Israel, California, Switzerland, as far as to Japan rose my curiosity. My studious research yielded quite shocking revelations of our communally shared ignorance. The fibre-rich, multiple fruit according to the Carnegie Science Center researchers reveals: “The brownish or whitish specks, which are commonly considered seeds, are the true fruits, called achenes, and each of them surrounds a tiny seed.” Since the seeds are placed outside, it cannot be classified a berry as a blueberry is for example. Each strawberry has about 200 fruits on it. And this is only the start, I gasped at my further findings.
Human creativity meets natural selection though questions
What you probably did not know about strawberries beyond their Wimbledon fame, whipped cream pairing, milkshake and frozen treats, is that it is not just where they are grown or on which farm but as with apples, there are many different taste profiles and colours to show. While it is unlikely that you will ever taste all the hybrids and cultivars (Wikipedia incompletely lists only the US&UK), each tastes slightly different.
Tinted by sun exposure or the lack of it from off-white, through Valentino red, to inky violet. I tried the rainbow of this jolly pseudo-fruit (allow me to refer to it a ‘berry’ further on as per familiar, while incorrect linguistic labelling) except for the almost blackish Chinese breed (China unsurprisingly also produces the largest quantity of 草莓 read: Cǎoméi).The so called black strawberry is actually of a very deep dark violet hue. It is remarkable that no genetic modifications were used in creating this breed. The ochre, yellowish variants I had in Munich (imported from Belgium) and Stockholm (imported from Netherlands) called “pineberry” is actually a light-hued, red seeded strawberry found recently in South Africa that tastes like pineapple. Dutch farmers saved this breed, which was on the brink of extinction.
Heart-shaped (is human heart indeed two joined mirroring question marks??), but also conical, oval or indefinably shaped like the most recent claimer of the Guinness World record for heaviest strawberry Ilan (named charmingly after the farmer’s son) at 289 grams!! (an average strawberry weighs 15 grams) grown in Israel in February 2022.
Rainbow of strawberries celebrated around the world
My globe-spanning travels include countless strawberry stories. From picking them in the wild anywhere from the Swiss Alps (German: Erdbeeren) and Zurich hills (again this morning on my way from yoga), French gas stations (fraises), sampling the previously world’s heaviest ‘King of Strawberry’ and the priciest white in Japan (苺 read: ichigo) to the world’s best chefs’ creative recipes at the fine tables.
This time of the year I would be driving through the Mediterranean Eze village, seduced to stop my car for a giant basketful of sexy red Naiad strawberries driven from Provence fresh daily by the roadside vendor. Buy a kilo or go to a supermarket. This large quantity would stir creativity once one was overfed by the pure fruit. The assembled deliciousness at home from countless cookbooks, as I did once with a giant white truffle, I would add them into anything (best recipe suggestions further down).
While the Italian fragola can sing a libretto according to the Pinocchios of that well-heeled land, the strawberries in Italy as well as from Spain have not impressed me so far. Even from the Southernmost Sicily, they do not taste as complex as those grown in France or further North. No matter how South the berry was grown, the Italians could not measure up to the Provencal specimens when in season.
In Denmark I tasted Favori, the first harvest of the year mid May (Danish jordbær). Chef Christian Baumann now at the superb Koan Copenhagen, where local bounty meets Nordic and Korean culinary heritage, worked as a teenager on a berry farm each summer learning about the subtle differences between strawberries and serves others like Rumba as the season progresses.
Always seasonal superfood
Forget June, there is always peak ripeness somewhere in the world. Heralds of early spring sunshine in the Middle East, later in Europe and Northern America, strawberries sweeten the year with juicy Vitamin C brightness, yet in some places it is the winter when they are at their best and cooler weather also favours more intense flavour. Mountain berries taste the most concentrated.
Plus, a bowlful has more fibre than a slice whole grain bread, so do not hesitate to eat plenty, sans gluten. More, the not always red juicy rascal turned out a relative with rose hanging out botanically in the same Rosaceae family.
These are the first ripe fruits rouges, to use the deceitful French term for all berries including black, blue, purple, yellow, beige, white, opal, or whatever colour a surface acquires as the sunshine warms its pigmented skin, ripe in the mild climate of four-seasons variability.
Made in France, literally
These edible roses grew from only a few original wild strawberry species into many breeds. The garden strawberries were first bred in Brittany, France in the 1750s from fragaria virginiana (American wild strawberry) hybridized with Chilean Fragaria chiloensis. This became the Fragaria ananassa species (there are about 20 now) resistant to diseases that ripens earlier and is the most used variety in commercial strawberry production. Hundreds of other crossbred species are available around the world throughout the year.
It is also the French who honour the distinctions of these not always red berries most beyond the garden shops also on the food marketplace. I love the bloody juicy and bright Anaïs from the Loire valley, sweet Burgundy-deep Cirafine from Brittany, reliable Cléry from Ille de France, and while the Provençal Dream candy, marmalade processed sugar flavour is not for me, Joly and Murano — both straightforward bursts of sunshine in your mouth are delightful. Most distinguished in Provence are strawberries from Carpentras, Pertruis and Vaucluse. The Gariguette are perhaps most farmed in France and they are reliably sweet.
At Septime in Paris we ended a birthday meal with brick pale, juicy and balanced sweet Diamante. Most French Michelin chefs favour the cross of Mara des Bois for their wild forest fragrance resembling Alpine strawberries (fraises des bois in French).
Their bright acidity qualitatively sets apart Mara de Bois, with an intense, instantly recognisable strawberry perfume. It is more like an 80 percent dark chocolate in terms of sweetness and the pure taste of the place it grows. I can smell and taste the leaves, the bushes on the sun-warmed hedges where they like to grow. It is a luxury product of savvy breeding. These are one of my favourites, but it really depends on the day or how I want to eat them. The former chef to the designer Kenzo, Nakayama Toyomitsu serves mara de bois with caviar or shaved feta cheese at his Michelin star counter in Paris.
The success of any strawberry plant is about location. In the US different varieties dominate than in Europe or Asia. In America, the hard worker Honeoye, forerunner Earliglow, giant Allstar and the pretty red Jewel, not to be confused with the rare Japanese white Jewel. It is getting rather confusing in the strawberry world, doesn’t it?
While the low-yielding breed white Jewel strawberries in the Saga prefecture of Japan are very difficult to find, the most expensive there are the Kokota breed, priced at around $22 for just a single berry this is indeed a jewel, not your regular milkshake friend. The giants in Japan may look suspiciously oversized, but far from a watered down inferiority. The Amaou strawberries from Fukuoka Prefecture are widely considered to be the best, and so called the King of Strawberries. Grown inside temperature-controlled vinyl greenhouses from December to May, the first picks are generally considered the sweetest.
How to savvily buy strawberries
Often imported from earlier ripening warm lands like Spain (fresas), Morocco (friz – the peak seasons are between December and January), Portugal (morangos), California to our impatient Northern palates before the local, often very short growing season kicks off.
Farmy, my Swiss delivery platform focusing on more sustainable, local produce even dares to claim that the Swiss strawberries are more sweet than from other countries because of their slower ripening. Well, with global warming we get the red garden berries from late May as other parts of Europe, yet if you compare with the imported produce to Switzerland, often inferior to what I eat in France, Oregon and the Nordic countries, locally farmed Erdbeeren indeed tend to be sweeter since they can be picked perfectly ripe.
Like all berries, they are fragile to handle so they are often gathered, transported and even sold in punnets, a small, usually paper or wooden box. Best, pluck your own and eat them the same day. Not just their antioxidant potency is diminished, but their flavour is muted by refrigeration, and since they are susceptible to moisture, mold easily develops so eat that punnet rapidly.
While strawberries are included in the dirty dozen list having often the highest residues of pesticides, here organic does not mean necessarily better taste. Eating a few samples I got around the markets in Paris next to the conventional varietal ones, I was struck how inferior the “bio” tasted. Too often, the flavour is watery, diluted, bland, sour, rarely you get to know the exact variety. Most organic shops around Europe stock them from the vast plantations in Spain.
Wild joy of the colour red in nature
Searching through strawberry photos in my library, yielded unexpected discoveries. The quirkiest were my favourite strawberry bikini travelling with me from Italy through Asia in my early 20s. While I am working on getting that strawberry body back, my fascination with strawberries has grown. Well, if I subsided on a diet of strawberries only for a month, I would probably get there with a flash of those ripped abs, but anything too much is just not fun.
Driving through France last July, I spotted plentiful red sparks in the grassland and picked a box-full of wild joy around a gas station set in the countryside. Cycling in my native Czechia (Jahoda in my native Czech even graces some families with the strawberry namesake, greetings to all of the Mr and Mrs Jahoda!) often seduces me into the roadside hedges and hiking in the Alps each summer often turns into slow strolling as my face and fingers turn red with all that juicy bounty. Have you wondered which variety is the sweetest? It seems that the tiny Alpine Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) is one of the sweetest fruits you can grow.
Usually the first crop is best. High in the mountains, the wild Alpine variety ripens later, I usually pick them mid to late August, while down in altitude around Zurich I can forage around early in July, our backyard beset by usually haloes the ripening season.
How to eat the not-berries and some palate-opening recipes
Chefs keep the admired fruit going as well on their bold menus including lobster, black pepper (in Copenhagen) and other savoury ingredients in their strawberry recipes. In Vienna at Tian, I had them dressed with verbena leaves, poppy seed crackers, topped by their sorbet. Alain Ducasse marinated fraises de bois in sweet juice and in Monaco served them simply (even a three star restaurant can do things in uncomplicated way, bravo!) with vanilla ice cream. Just this weekend in Zurich at Maison Manesse, they pureed unripe Swiss green strawberries into a refreshing desert with cucumber, pistachios and sorrel sorbet. Superbly light for an unusually hot first June Saturday!
I would also add strawberries into a chilled gazpacho. Blend them in with the sweet n’sour tomatoes, bell peppers, even a cucumber, season well with spicy sauce and white pepper. In Europe usually crossing path with the tail of asparagus season, mixing them together in a salad is not a bad idea, add feta cheese or some string beans. Sage surprisingly pairs well. Herbs like basil or mint, heating spices such as cinnamon, vanilla, cardamom, and chili also enhance the flavour of the pure fruit. A ripe strawberry does not need any sugar in my opinion. Once a sweetener is added, the breadth of the taste is diminished.
Honestly, I love them mostly bare, not in cakes, perhaps with a drizzle of olive oil and fleur du sel or aged Modena balsamic vinegar.
My grandmother used to make me a milkshake in June, she had no blenders or electric equipment back then. Just ripe strawberries picked from her garden minutes before were mashed with a spoon, easily (not with a fork as that would break the flesh chasing the texture) adding the icing sugar powder to it ground it a bit, then little by little she would pour some whole milk from her dairy cow into it. This tastes like no milkshake I have ever had anywhere ever since.
The most famous strawberry recipes include a Pavlova, pies, jams and marmalade in the West, Far East Fukuoka’s most famous wagashi ichigo daifuku, a strawberry enveloped in azuki red bean paste, mochi (sticky rice cake) and rolled into a ball is a must.
In Amsterdam, strawberries (aardbeien in Dutch) are marinated in rose sirup to be served alongside verbena ice cream and fresh almonds (also in season with the strawberries). At the Restaurant de Kas the chef Gert Jan Hageman profits from his organic greenhouses dating back to 1926.
At Brae in Australia’s countryside the pairing with green fresh almonds finds refreshing rendering with fig leaf oil and yogurt whey in a broth of broad (fava) beans. The chef Dan Hunter prefers the sweet Japanese specimens and the wild and rather rare white “fraises des bois”.
In cocktails, especially frozen or blended smooth beyond daiquiris (cask-aged rum), they work well with gin, neutral vodka, sparkling wine (as in Hugo), in France there is even a liquor made with the wild fraises de bois with countless blending options (in French). My local Swiss farm also makes a strawberry liquor from their superset crop. You can of course make a mocktail or that indulgent frozen strawberry daiquiri.
Raw or smoked fish like salmon pair well and so do vegetables like fennel. Mix in other fruits like mango in a spicy fresh salsa:
- 3/4 cup diced strawberries
- 3/4 cup diced mango
- 1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
- 2 tablespoons diced red onion
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- 2 teaspoons honey, or more to taste
- Juice of 1 lime
I like them as they are, like a kaiseki restaurant would serve these treats plain at the end of a long meal. I enjoy the Chinese and Japanese tradition of enjoying the highest quality fruit plain, showing their natural perfection, without adornments, dough, cream and other desserty companions we like in the West. My Japanese friend says: “I had them with some herbs like mint and shiso, white chocolate injected and so on, but still like them most as they are.” Anyway creativity knows no borders and the Western influence on either culinary culture infiltrated the Far-Eastern markets with layered sponge cakes, trifles, chocolate fountains, waffles and other sugary accompaniments to strawberries.
Some no brainers, so obvious generalisations of our seasonal experience just automatically escape our closer examination. Yet, when one pays attention to details, and in spring reads the labels above or bellow the “fraises” at markets in France. While being one of the most popular western spring heralds of ripeness, strawberries are one of the most qualitatively stretched fruits I know. The greatest of these berries stand alone strong!