The strawberry is generally seen as the quintessential English fruit, synonymous with tennis at Wimbledon where thirty tonnes of the sweet red berry are devoured every year, washed down with the mandatory Pimms and lemonade. Enjoyed since Roman times, there are many different varieties of strawberry hailing from many different countries. Historically, strawberries eaten in the UK were mostly the wild woodland variety fragaria vesca,however during the eighteenth century the variety fragoria x ananasa or ‘pineapple strawberry’ became popular. This variety was a crossbreed of two strawberries from the Americas and was so popular it became known as the garden strawberry and is now the basis of all strains of garden strawberry in the UK.
Such was the demand for strawberries in Britain, farmers were pushed to grow them all year round, trying to breed bigger and brighter fruits. Eventually taste became second to size, colour and shelf life, giving rise to the greenhouse-grown ‘cotton wool’ tasting imposters often cultivated en masse in Spain. Fortunately, in recent years there has been a resurgence in old varieties of strawberry and taste is once again driving things forward. Look for varieties such as Mara de Bois, Strawberry Alice and Cambridge for flavours that take you back to your childhood.
Strawberry season in the UK is June to August – anything available out of this time is likely grown in a greenhouse and imported from overseas. Strawberries ripen when the plant releases the hormone auxin, which causes the cell walls to degrade and soften. As they don’t ripen further once picked, it is best to buy local strawberries as this is a guarantee of freshness. Strawberries are high in immunity boosting antioxidants such as vitamin C, K and manganese and are also fat-free and relatively high in fibre.