We’re in the pink! It’s come around again, strawberry season. The Dordogne may lay claim to strawberries - understandably, given they’re accorded DOC status. But they were first bred in Brittany, in the 1750s. Up till then, wild strawberries were the common fruit.
It’s an ancient one. Roman literature mentions it in reference to medicinal application. What diseases they used it to cure isn’t known, but from the 1600s on, the entire plant was applied in the treatment of depression. It appears in 15th century illuminated manuscripts by European monks. It shows up in works of the same period by English minituarists and in paintings by Italian, Flemish and German artists. Charles V, who ruled France from 1364 to 1380, had 12000 strawberry plants in his royal garden. The gourmet who came up with the heavenly combination of strawberries and cream was an archbishop, Thomas Wolsey, cardinal of the Catholic Church, controller of the affairs of state of the English court of Henry VIII and eventually charged with treason, a regular habit of that monarch. Luckily for Wolsey, he died on his way back to London to answer the charges.
A common garden fruit, strawberries are, uncommonly, both masculine and feminine. The very first species was the wild woodland strawberry, Fragaria vesca. Originally, these male woodland strawberries were crossed with the male Fragaria virginiana from the state of Virginia in northeast America to cultivate a larger fruit than the wild variety.
F. virginiana is one of the two great New World ancestors without which we wouldn’t have the strawberry of today, and the many varieties found across south-west France. The other ancestor is the female Fragaria chiloensis, the beach strawberry, brought from Chile in 1714 by Amédée-François Frézier, French military engineer, mathematician, spy, and explorer, whose name is now theirs, albeit spelled differently. (This is for those of you who enjoy pop quizzes.)
The Mapuche and Huilliche Indians of Chile had been cultivating strawberries with female flowers, which is the plant the Europeans brought back to cross with their own fruit. They had little success, until the middle of the 18th century when gardeners around north west France noticed that when woodland strawberries and Virginian strawberries, both male, were planted in between rows of female Chilean strawberries, the latter would produce large and abundant fruits.
These days, though, it’s Fragaria x ananass with its scent of pineapple which is prime in cultivating species for commercial production - none of which you need to know for a pop quiz. But what might stump your competitors is the fact that the strawberry isn’t a berry at all. It’s what’s called ‘an aggregate accessory fruit’. You may have wondered, biting into one, why a strawberry’s seeds are on the exterior of the fruit, not inside. Each of those tiny seeds is not, in fact, a seed. It is one of the ovaries of the strawberry flower with a seed inside it. The fleshy part of the fruit is simpy a receptacle to hold these ovaries.
For your final pop quiz question: which, in a business where, in 2017, global production of strawberries was 9.2 million tonnes, is the world’s top producer of strawberries? Clue: it is not anywhere in Europe. It is - no surprise, really - China.
Strawberry shortcakes, generally considered an American classic, are originally British, great with a game of cricket and a jug of Pimms. Basically, they’re scones. So use your own recipe if you prefer.
- 400g strawberries, hulled and washed
- 30g+1 tablespoon caster sugar
- 85g+3 tablespoons cold butter
- 300g flour
- ¼ teaspoon fine salt
- 2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- 300ml thick cream for whipping
- 1 egg yolk, beaten with 1 tablespoon milk
Preheat oven to 220C.
Grease a baking sheet. Quarter the strawberries. Put a third into a bowl with 30g sugar and crush roughly with a fork. Fold the cut strawberries into the mush.
Sift flour into a mixing bowl, whisk in remaining sugar, salt and baking powder. Grate in cold butter then rub into the dry ingredients until it turns into coarse breadcrumbs. Stir in 160ml of the cream to form a soft dough, adding more if needed. Knead quickly until just smooth, tip onto a floured surface and roll to 5mm thick. With a 6cm cutter, cut out 8 rounds. Set half on the baking sheet, melt the 3 tablespoons of butter and brush the tops of the rounds with it then put other halves on top of them. Brush those with beaten egg, bake 20 minutes till risen and gold.
Pull them apart. Brush middles with any remaining butter. Set aside to cool on a rack.
Pour the cream into a large bowl and whip to soft peaks. Put a scoop of cream on four bottoms. Spoon the strawberry mush generously over each then lay the remaining scone halves on top and serve.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the June 2021 edition of The Bugle.