Tom Norrington-Davies thinks the much-loved symbols of summer are much more versatile than people give them credit for.
There is a rather odd Victorian ditty that goes:
Cherries so red, strawberries ripe,
At home of course they’ll be storming,
Never mind the abuse, you have the excuse,
You went to Covent Garden in the morning.
Covent Garden was once the fruit and flower market of London. I like the image the song throws up: of strawberries – the first soft fruits of British summertime – as wanton luxuries. It is an outdated image, except perhaps during Wimbledon week when up to 40,000 portions of strawberries and cream will be sold to spectators. They in turn will grumble about the cost, while revelling in such a nod to tradition. After all, strawberries are proper posh and very British. Just like Wimbledon! Or are they?
Strawberries have been sold to Londoners in little cones, like sweets, since the time of Charles II. Back then, the cones would have been filled with a tiny, wild forest fruit. The plumper, cultivated version can be traced back to America.
In fact, the fruit we eat today is the result of centuries of crossbreeding, not to mention mollycoddling. Brits might love strawberries but strawberries hate the cold and wet. In fact, the British crop has always been a triumph of determination over climate. A bit like your average trip to the seaside.
It is this determination to enjoy the strawberry that makes buying them a bit of a lottery. There is no place for jingoism here. Even British strawberries can be beautiful and tasteless, or gorgeously ripe but bruised and ugly. One solution is to pick your own, which might lead you to varieties of strawberry that don’t make their way onto the shelves of supermarkets and greengrocers. Varieties such as Keens’ Imperial or Royal Sovereign (that last one sounds very lawn tennis) cannot compete with the commercial success of the Elsanta strawberry. It is this little red peril of ‘perfect’ shape and colour that can disappoint you if it’s packaged in a plastic casing. Open punnets are better. At least you can smell the fruit.
Still, shambling through strawberry fields is an impractical, if appealing, way of shopping and, sometimes, it is a case of supermarket strawberries or bust. If you end up with fruit that is firm or sharp, try leaving them to bask in the warmth of your home. You could also macerate strawberries with a stingy squeeze of lemon juice and some caster sugar. This will get their juices flowing a bit. Another solution is to use firm strawberries in savoury recipes, which I have included here. Neither is at all wacky.
When it comes to dessert, if strawberries are good, where do you start? Strawberries and cream is the obvious answer. It should be caster sugar and single cream. You could pair strawberries with cheese. The best has to be a crumbly Cheshire. Or try Italian cheeses – a fresh ricotta or an aged Parmesan are two extremes of scale, but they both complement the fruit very well.