Russ Parsons: Scanning the roadside for the perfect strawberries

The stands selling Wexford strawberries seem to be popping up everywhere right now

I’ve long had a soft spot for strawberries – good strawberries, that is, not the Styrofoam-firm, bland fruits of international commerce. Photograph: iStock

I’ve long had a soft spot for strawberries – good strawberries, that is, not the Styrofoam-firm, bland fruits of international commerce. Photograph: iStock

 

The snowdrops and daffodils in my yard are done and the bluebells are waning. Now it’s time to start looking out for my next favourite spring bloom: the roadside stands selling Wexford strawberries.

In Waterford, these seem to pop up every 100 metres or so, wherever there is a spot in the road wide enough to park a car. There is no sweeter wildflower around.

I’ve long had a soft spot for strawberries – good strawberries, that is, not the Styrofoam-firm, bland fruits of international commerce. Strawberries represent the best and the worst of modern fruit-growing.

I still dream about the winey Chandler strawberries I used to get at farmers’ markets in California, with flavour so deep and complex they tasted like good Burgundy.

Though I may be disowned by my old home state, even those take second-best to the violet-scented Mara des Bois I gobble when visiting friends who live in Gascony.

In another category completely are the fraises des bois, wild strawberries, fragile as a promise, but with a remarkable high-toned candied perfume.

In fact, those wild strawberries do belong to another category – and therein lies the beginning of our story of the strawberry’s transformation from a fleeting pleasure of spring to a year-round convenience fruit.

Until relatively recently they were available only for a month or so in late spring, and their appearance was celebrated with fetes and feasts

Except for the wild ones, which almost never come to market, almost every strawberry you’ve ever tasted stems from one of the more unlikely marriages in fruit history.

It happened during the 18th century’s great age of exploration, when adventurers were bringing plant samples back to Europe from all over the world. A French plant breeder crossed a wild strawberry from America’s East Coast (fragaria virginiana) with a beach strawberry from the coast of Chile (fragaria chiloensis). The result was fragaria ananassa, from which almost all modern market strawberries are descended.

Ubiquitous

Though strawberries now seem so ubiquitous that they have become the parsley of the breakfast bowl, until relatively recently they were available only for a month or so in late spring, and their appearance was celebrated with fetes and feasts. Those days now seem distant.

We have loved the strawberry well, but not wisely. In our rush to be able to eat them wherever and whenever we want, we have encouraged plant breeders and farmers to grow fruit that can be shipped around the world. Plants are bred for firmness of fruit and then farmers harvest the berries while still slightly underripe in order to accentuate that.

That is why having locally grown strawberries is so special, like the ones that come from Wexford. Though these are available for months rather than the weeks of days gone by, when you find a stand you can rely on, they are exquisitely sweet berries, with some of the tenderness and perfume of old.

They certainly deserve to be better appreciated than they are. Despite Irish consumption of strawberries nearly doubling in the past decade, we still import far more than we grow, most of them coming in from Spain and the Netherlands. It’s time to support your local berry.

If you want to cook strawberries, be very careful. They are bright red because of a pigment called anthocyanin, which is heat-sensitive

What do you do with your strawberries once you’ve caught them? If you’ve got good ones, as little as possible. Strawberries are one of those ingredients that can be ornamented, but not improved.

Pile them in a pastry crust and glaze them with strained jam. Even more simply, fill meringue nests with sweetened strawberries crushed with just a hint of orange flower water. Or combine strawberries and oranges in a compote moistened with basil syrup.

Strawberry shortcake

I love an old-fashioned American strawberry shortcake – basically a split cream scone piled with sugared strawberries and whipped cream.

Or fill the shortcake with strawberry ice cream. Just make vanilla ice cream and, when it’s almost set, fold in strawberries. Be sure to sugar the berries well in advance to pull as much moisture as possible from the fruit or you’ll wind up with ice cream spiked with little strawberry ice cubes.

If you want to cook strawberries, be very careful. They are bright red because of a pigment called anthocyanin, which is heat-sensitive. When cooked, that beautiful ruby colour turns a bruised purple.

You can avoid this by adding some acidity, which fixes the colour. That’s why you always add either lemon or orange juice to strawberry preserves (I find orange better complements the flavour).

It’s also one reason why strawberries and rhubarb make such a magical combination. Rhubarb is about as acidic as oranges, so when it is baked with strawberries, such as in a crisp or a crumble, the berries will remain vibrantly coloured. It’s almost a bonus that the pairing tastes so good, too.

Last summer, while weeding the garden, I found a patch of wild strawberries growing under some bushes. There were only a few fruits and they were tiny, smaller than the nail on my little finger. But they were exquisitely fragrant.

Having my priorities in order, I removed the bushes and left the strawberry “weeds”. My fingers are crossed to see if I get a better harvest this spring, but I’m still keeping my eye on the roadsides just to be safe.

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