Sunday, 20 December 2015

The first strawberries of Summer... and what to do with them

The first time I ever ate wild strawberries...

I was living in Italy and went to spend a day in the country with my Italian flatmate's family. There, in the Ligurian mountains, we sat outside and a fruit tart was presented with a flourish. 

When I saw the strawberries gleaming on top, I knew that they were the little wild ones that I'd grown up with in Melbourne, dotted around the hundred-year-old colonial garden that surrounded our home (a crumbling mansion long since divided into grand but ever more shabby apartments). 

Back then, I didn't know they were edible, and I used to pick them and leave them in little heaps for the fairies to collect. 

My first mouthful of that wild strawberry tart was a revelation. I discovered that wild strawberries are indeed edible - in fact, they tasted more strawberryish than any strawberry I had ever eaten. I was filled with joy at the discovery, and regret that I had not understood, as a child, what a treasure I had given so freely to the garden fairies without ever keeping some for myself. 

Now I grow my own little woodland strawberries and pick them as soon as they're ripe, and pop them in my mouth. At that moment I channel that moment in time, seated at an old wooden bench in the Ligurian mountains, overwhelmed with the amazing taste of strawberriness.

So why can't you just buy these at the supermarket?


THESE DAYS (says my inner granny), big chains tend to buy strawberries on contract, from growers encouraged to focus on varieties chosen for their long life and thick skins (making them perfect for carting across state boundaries in huge refrigerated trucks).

While very useful to large supermarket chains and their shareholders, these strawberry varieties are not always the tastiest. In proof of Murphy's Law, the tastiest strawberries are the wild ones, and these collapse inwards and lose their dignity within a few hours of picking. Woodland and alpine strawberries, the baby cousins of the gigantic bullies preferred by large conglomerates, are just not suitable for the mass market.

The good news is that these beautiful little berries are really simple to grow, spreading almost like weeds once established, and (if you can get to them before your friendly neighbourhood birdlife) you will be rewarded with mouth-watering deliciousness.

I'll admit a couple of things off the bat here.

They're pretty small. The one on the right here is a really, really big one. The one in the middle is about normal. So, bargain for 1-cm fruit. You need a lot of those to do much with them.

That brings me to my next point! These little plants spread wildly, suckering their way around all of the unused places in your garden.

They can tolerate sun or total shade, they adore partial shade and they'll grow happily as edgings and underneath bushes and around the clothesline.

I grew my first alpine strawberry plants from seed (try an online heritage seed supplier) and proudly planted in about 8 weeny plantlets.

 Like chives and bulbs, a single plant will 'divide' into several as it grows. At the end of the first season, I discovered that my 8 plants were actually 32 plants competing for space and resources. I ripped them up, separated them, and put them all back as an edging. The result is above.

Since then I've repeated the ripping up and separating process numerous times. Also, the plants have suckered and created outposts of their own.

These take longer to get established but once they're going they just keep going like the Duracell Bunny. I have about 50 plants now I think. They don't take up much space.

Once they get fruiting, they're awesome!

Mainly I eat them straight off the bush. These little darlings don't last long once picked. However, if you have a few, you could make a fantastic shortcrust pastry tart with a creme patisserie filling and top it with them, as described in my memory above. Mini tartlets would work even better if you only have a few fruits.

You can store them for a few hours in an airtight plastic bag in the refrigerator, but be warned - they will crinkle up and disappear into themselves before you can say boo to the nearest passing goose.

Thus endeth the lesson on the relative merits of strawberries. Brought to you by Dr Cupcake.