Ask a foreigner to name the fruit that above all others epitomises their image of Britain, and it will surely be the strawberry. It is less a fruit than an icon. Redolent of royalty: not just for its role jam sandwiching together a Victoria Sponge but for its colour too, as patriotically red as the tunics of The Queen’s Guards. To eat bowls of strawberries and cream at Wimbledon. To partake of a punnet on a park picnic. These things are as quintessentially British as tea and queuing.
What is it that is so evocative about strawberries? They are of course synonymous with summer, and they have about them something of the match tea, of outdoor eating and of holidays. There is nostalgia too: growing up without strawberry jam sandwiches was surely no childhood at all. They feel like a very egalitarian fruit: while a few posh kids might grow up with a taste for blueberries and loganberries, everyone knows what a strawberry tastes like. The timing of their arrival adds to the anticipation: the appearance of home-grown strawberries on shelves heralds the proper start of the British fruit season after so many months of cold and wet and dreaded kiwis.
Even setting aside the food miles, I find there is something particularly deplorable about getting a non-British strawberry, when the home-grown ones are so superior. Wait until May for the early season British fruit, grown under cover. They will often get better as the season goes on and they have had time enough to soak up the sun. Thanks largely to the breeding of new cultivars by the East Malling Research centre in Kent – the epicentre of strawberry production – the traditional six-week UK strawberry season is now far longer, so we can gorge with abandon throughout the summer: on Symphony and Sweet Eve, on Sallybright and Judibell, or – as the special bank holiday weekend approaches – on Jubilee (first released in 2002 for HM’s Golden Jubilee) or on any of the other 30-odd varieties grown in this country.
The horticulturalist George M. Darrow was the world’s foremost authority on strawberries (a life well lived). He notes in his 447-page magnum opus on the strawberry that cultivation of the fruit began in Europe in the 1300s. The French were enthusiasts, though the plant was considered more ornamental for its flowers than useful for its fruit. King Charles V had his gardener plant no less than 1,200 strawberry plants in the royal gardens of the Louvre in Paris. But the species looked different back then – more akin to the teeny wild strawberries which continue to grow in English hedgerows and woodlands. It was not until the Virginia strawberry was brought to England from across the pond and cross bred with a larger South American variety that the strawberry that we are accustomed to today was born. The first such ‘modern’ strawberry arrived on the English – and European – market in 1821. As Jane Grisgon tells, it was a sensation, with the grower awarded a silver cup by the Royal Horticultural Society. The notable strawberry successes thereafter read as a reassuringly, gloriously English roll-call: 'the next major strawberry was Downton…And so it went on. The culmination came in 1891 with Scarlet Queen and 1892 with Royal Sovereign.'
How to eat them? Strawberries are perfect with pastry, such as in these simple little tartlets. For a teatime option, try this strawberry and Earl Grey roulade, a twist on a Swiss roll. For pudding, it is hard to better this strawberry trifle. You will often see recipes suggesting you marinate your strawbs in balsamic vinegar to bring out the flavour. It does work so long as you use best-quality aged balsamic. A little pile thus prepared goes perfectly with a vanilla panacotta or with ice cream.
Do not be scared of using them in savoury dishes too; they work very well paired with feta and thyme in this tart. And they can be used to great effect in vinaigrettes where they provide a little acidity in place of vinegar. Simply blend strawberries together with half olive oil and half flavourless oil, add seasoning and a little sugar, and serve drizzled atop sliced avocado for a Prue Leith classic.
And of course eat them, in great quantity, with cream. A poll earlier this month saw strawberries and cream voted by almost three quarters of Brits as the 'most iconic British flavour', comfortably ahead of rhubarb and custard in second place. The classic pairing is often attributed to Cardinal Wolsey, who indulged frequently on the combo as he lorded it up in Hampton Court Palace. Strawberries and cream was served at the very first Wimbledon tournament in 1877. And chefs have sought their own twists on the dream pairing: Escoffier provides a number of variations on the combination in his Le Guide Culinair, including a recipe for Strawberries Romanov where the fruit is marinated in curaçao and served with Chantilly cream. For a British take, try this recipe where the strawberries are infused with Pimms and then flambéed.
Strawberries have long been associated in literature with temptation and fittingly so, for who can resist them? They are a universal crowd pleaser – not for nothing is the strawberry the only fruit to sit amongst such greats as vanilla and chocolate at the top table of classic ice creams. To make your own, follow Nigella’s recipe for homemade strawberry ice cream: as she says, it is the taste of blue skies.
If you have any that are past their best, try this quick pickle with mint and pink peppercorns, or oven-dry them to create gummy fruits you can use in salads or eat as a snack. And their use in libations is not limited to a flavouring in Pimms: they can be the main event too, such as in this homemade strawberry gin or in this frozen strawberry daiquiri. And chef Asimakis Chaniotis advises that strawberries are “incredible macerated in Cognac”. Try serving the macerated fruit with ice cream and, as Alexis says, after three days macerating the liquor is a treat to sip.
Strawberries are a national treasure. Opining on the fruit, the seventeenth century physician Dr. William Butler declared 'Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did'. Never was a truer word spoken.