Berry good flavour
‘Mara des Bois’ is a French variety of strawberry with a remarkable flavour, but it’s tricky to obtain and to grow. Here are some tips ...
I picked my first ripe strawberry from the garden late last week; scarlet-red and succulent, its sweet flesh smelled of summer and tasted something like the wild strawberries that my siblings and I used to pick from the hedgerows as children dawdling lazily back from school. That’s because the particular variety is a “perpetual” or “remontant” type (more about this later) known as Mara des Bois. It was bred by the famous French nurseryman Jacques Marionnet more than 20 years ago using four other older varieties – Gento, Redgauntlet, Ostara and Korona – as parents.
Marionnet’s ambition was to produce a variety of strawberry that retained the intense flavour and fragrance of the woodland strawberry, an elusive quality missing from many modern varieties. He succeeded wonderfully. Such is its scrumptiousness that this French variety is prized by chefs the world over, including the Michelin-starred Martijn Kajuiter of the Cliff House Hotel in Co Waterford, who first told me about its remarkable flavour.
All of which makes it odd that it’s so hard to get hold of the plants. I searched high and low for an Irish stockist before ordering several dozen Mara des Bois coldstored runners from the excellent English nursery Ken Muir (kenmuir.co.uk) a couple of years ago. They arrived box-fresh on a late spring day and, after a quick soaking, went straight into a raised bed that I’d made sure to weed, dig, manure and then rake to a fine tilth. That might sound unduly fussy but the truth is that, with the exception of the Alpine types, the strawberry is a fussy plant that prefers full sun, protection from strong winds, and a fertile, moist but free-draining soil (ideally very slightly acid). Too dry and the plants grow and crop poorly, too wet and they succumb to any one of a variety of soil-borne diseases. Planting depth is also crucial – place the crowns too deeply or not deep enough and they will fail to establish.
For ease of maintenance, mine were planted at 12-inch intervals in rows two feet apart, just wide enough to comfortably hoe away any weed seedlings without damaging the plants. To encourage strong plants and a well-established root system, in their first year I also nipped out any “runners” that started to appear. More properly known as stolons, these self-rooting shoelace-like growths are produced by the parent plant in spring/summer and, if left to their own devices, will quickly produce another young strawberry plant. The trick is not only to prevent the parent plant from producing runners until it’s properly well-established, but also to prevent them from being produced in such abundance that they reduce the quality of the fruit. Allow no more than three or four per well-established plant, weaving them back close to the parents to produce what’s known as a matted row.