The strawberry is a bright red, sweet fruit synonymous with British summertime. It belongs to the Fragaria species and the name is believed to be derived from the Anglo Saxon word 'strew', which means to spread, a reference to the growing tendencies of the plant. Strawberries have been mentioned in history since Roman times but have only been commercially cultivated since the 1700s when new varieties were introduced to France from Chile and North America giving us the strawberries that we are familiar with today. The USA is till the world’s largest producer of strawberries, however, in the UK the majority of strawberries consumed are grown in Spain.
Strawberries and cream is probably the most commonly known use for the fruit – it is said that the pairing was created by Thomas Wolesy in the time of Henry VIII as a simple but delicious dessert to cater for banquets of up to 500 people. Strawberries and cream are now famously associated with Wimbledon, with 28,000 kilograms of strawberries and 7,000 litres of cream being consumed in the two week period of the tournament every year.
There are many different varieties of strawberry, the most common in commercial production being the Elsanta which is mass grown in greenhouses and poly tunnels all year round and subsequently often lacks flavour. Other varieties in the UK include the Cambridge Favourite, a traditional strawberry, Sweet Eve, a juicy midsummer variety and Marais de Bois which has an intense flavour similar to that of a wild strawberry.
Strawberries are available in the supermarket all year round but it is best to buy British grown which are in season from June to August and have a much sweeter flavour. Look for bright red fruits which are not bruised or blemished in any way. Store strawberries in the fridge to keep them fresh for up to 4 days but allow them to come to room temperature before consuming as the flavour is more pronounced when they are slightly warmer.
Strawberries don’t require cooking and are fantastic served simply with sprinkling of sugar or a splash of cream or even just by themselves. The British classic Eton Mess consists of strawberries with whipped cream and broken-up pieces of meringue.
Due to their high pectin content, strawberries lend themselves well to jam, preserve and compote making. They also make fantastic milkshakes, smoothies, ice creams and granitas.
Marinating strawberries is a marvellous way of softening the fruit so they release their naturally sweet juices. It also provides an opportunity to add fragrant or spicy flavourings. Graham Campbell marinates strawberries in a combination of fresh mint and sweet, tangy balsamic vinegar, but why not try other flavours such as star anise, orange juice, rosé or vanilla. Macerating strawberries is another technique for intensifying the flavour and sweetness of the fruit.
Although strawberries are normally served uncooked, pan-roasting gives the fruit a lovely caramelisation. Josh Eggleton favours this approach in his strawberries on eggy bread recipe.
When it comes to flavour pairing, nature often offers a few clues of its own. Mint and elderflower, both in season at a similar time of year, make splendid partners for strawberries. Floral elderflower balances out their sweetness, while mint’s refreshing quality can temper any cloying sweetness.
Strawberries and champagne is a great if slightly decadent option, particularly for a Wimbledon-inspired dinner party. Try Tom Aikens’ deceptively simple dessert of Poached strawberries and champagne.
Strawberries can also work well in savoury dishes. More adventurous cooks will appreciate Alyn Williams’ dish which pickles strawberries in muscatel vinegar before serving with slices of beef, earthy Ryvita and peppery salad leaves.