Strawberries marked the beginning of summer in my childhood days. They were only available during their season. Well, maybe there were already hothouse grown ones from Holland that you could get in winter. If so, my mother never bought them because they were probably quite expensive and way less flavorful than those harvested in their outdoor growing season.
My mother surprised me when she told me that strawberries actually weren’t berries at all, but belonged into the family of nuts. She pointed out all the little seed-like dots on the red skin of the pseudo-fruit. And I’m just glad that, though I have been allergic to any kind of nuts during most of my adulthood, I have always been able to enjoy strawberries. Lots of them.
Apparently, the ancient Romans already knew the strawberry, and from the Middle Ages on, they appear in painted artwork all over Europe. It doesn’t surprise me at all that strawberries were deemed to treat depression – who would not enjoy the flavor of a strawberry, after all?! Royal kitchen gardens had the wonderful non-berry amongst their produce. By the 16th century, even commoners knew how to cultivate and make jam from them; in my hometown area they used salt to make it last longer – the dialect name “Gesaelz” (pronounce gah-‘zall-ts, i.e. salted down) bears witness to that practice.
Strawberries back then were all closer to the wild species than to what we find today. Only the introduction of a Northern American strawberry to the European varieties would create strawberries as we know them now. A Chilean kind also was thrown into the mix, its kind surviving mostly in the French area of Brest – even that is reflected in the local dialect of my hometown. Strawberries are called “Brestling” there.
As strawberries are planted on long mounds in my mother country, Germany, and they love the same kind of sandy soil as (white) asparagus, the produce is often grown side by side, and an asparagus salad with strawberries is not an unusual concoction at all. As the strawberry plants grow, their leaves have to be kept off the ground to avoid rot – guess what material was originally used, though today there might be foils and mats in use. Indeed: straw – which is another cause for their English name (the standard German name would be the equivalent of ground berry).
As the berries are picked one by one, another similarity to white asparagus, the harvesting process is quite tedious. These days, harvest helpers from other countries are less and less willing to work this hard for often low wages – so strawberry fields are decreasing in size. For quite a few families the self-picking option seems to be fun enough. But I don’t see why you would pick the fruit yourself at a similar price as you receive it already picked at a farmers market.
Recently I bought the first basket of strawberries of this summer season. I still turn them mostly into a salad, cutting them up and letting them set with a bit of sugar for a little while, just like my mother used to do. We never had them with cream (a combination that King Henry VIIIs Cardinal Wolsey apparently came up with) or whipped cream. I never really liked vanilla ice-cream with them either. I simply gobbled the strawberry preserves my grandmother used to make, though the non-fruit pretty much lost its color over the storing period. But to have a strawberry compote along with your German pancake for lunch in the middle of winter – ah, heaven!
Strawberry yoghurt, jam, ice-cream, tarte, sauce, shortcake, punch – I pictured all this when we sank half a dozen of strawberry plants into our raised garden bed in early May and deliberately placed straw underneath each and every stalk. Considering my bad luck with harvesting anything last summer makes me a little doubtful whether we will end up with even as much as a decent bowl for dessert in the end. But the reminiscence of these childhood summer flavors and my hopeless optimism have me watering these little ones faithfully. And if it is to present my husband with just a single one of these luscious, juicy red wonders with such a fascinatingly international history.