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The secret history of strawberries

They are the perfect summer fruit – and the kitchen can’t improve on perfection.

By Pen Vogler

While writing a book about food in Jane Austen’s life and work, I searched for a recipe that paid tribute to the comic scene in Emma where the upstart Mrs Elton preens her way into a strawberry party at Donwell Abbey. Her stream of enthusiastic commentary about “the best fruit in England” becomes a wearied mutter as she discovers that picking fruit in the sun is hard work: “Too rich… inferior to cherries” is her final judgement.

Mrs Elton, it turns out, is remarkably knowledgeable about contemporary strawberry growing, identifying several of the different cultivars as her spirits flag in the sun: “Hautboy infinitely superior – no comparison – the others hardly eatable – hautboys very scarce – Chili preferred – white wood finest flavour of all – price of strawberries in London.” The hautboy or “musk” strawberry is today a rare, gourmet’s pleasure; her “Chili” is Fragaria chiloensis, a sweet, juicy berry from the west coast of the Americas; and the “white wood” is probably the wild (Fragaria vesca) or Alpine strawberry.

How did this fruit for privileged picnickers turn into the multimillion-pound industry that, in today’s summer months, outsells supermarket basics such as bread and milk? The story begins with romantic happenstance. Sweet, fragile Fragaria chiloensis found itself alongside the tougher Fragaria virginiana in the nursery of a French botanist. The hybrid offspring was juicy yet hardy, with a delicate hint of pineapple that earned it the name Fragaria ananassa. We don’t trouble ourselves with the names of strawberry species today because everything we buy comes from this “garden strawberry”.

When the French Revolution guillotined frivolities such as plant-breeding, British horticulturalists took up the challenge. Two in particular, Thomas Andrew Knight, a gentleman enthusiast in Herefordshire, and Michael Keen, a market gardener in Isleworth, produced berries so admired even the French referred to Keen’s as les fraises anglaises. They had a season of four to six weeks, which came to overlap with Wimbledon later in the century.

The originally short season, and other afflictions such as mildew and disease, once kept strawberries a rarer treat. This changed with the postwar supermarkets whose feeble fruit and veg aisles couldn’t compete with the high-street greengrocer. As strawberries were seen as a feminine taste in Britain, they were the ideal vehicle to lure in early, sceptical customers (often called, with no irony, “Mrs Housewife”). Supermarkets pressured their suppliers to produce berries that combined all the desirable attributes in one: heavy-cropping, mildew- and disease-resistant, with different cultivars to extend the six-week season to six months. Picked strawberries don’t ripen, so the ripe fruit must be sweet and flavourful, but robust enough to withstand travel. There are, of course, complaints that berries are not sweet or flavourful enough. But on the whole, over two centuries of agronomy have enabled strawberry production in the UK to increase 213 per cent in the last 20 years.

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What, then, are we to make of the annual strawberry taste-tests that pit one supermarket’s version against another, as if the taste is a result of a label (and price) rather than of the varieties produced by generations of horticulturalists? It’s clever marketing, and of a piece with a world in which, as the American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer points out, children can identify 100 corporate logos but fewer than ten plants.

For all the undoubted human achievements in the nursery, the magic of strawberries is that the kitchen can’t improve on perfection. Nobody needs cheffy secrets or time-consuming techniques for a foolproof ending to dinner. When I found my Jane-Austen-era recipe for strawberry tartlets, a friend volunteered to test it. After a Mrs-Elton-esque disenchantment with faffy shortcrust pastry and strawberry-flavoured custard, she put it this way: “You could,” she wrote (with, I couldn’t help but detect, a pH level distinctly below 7), “just eat the strawberries. Maybe with some cream.”

“Dinner with Mr Darcy: Recipes Inspired by the Novels and Letters of Jane Austen” by Pen Vogler is published by Cico Books

[See also: The great wine climate-change challenge]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain