The start of Wimbledon this week makes it appropriate to talk strawberries even though the dreadful weather we are having this summer will make it harder than ever to find strawberries that really taste as they used to.
I live near Cheddar, once famed for its strawberries, and so have taken a considerable interest in this crop. Over the years I have carried out many informal tastings comparing varieties, growing methods and sites. The conclusions can best be summarised as this – real strawberries are a nightmare crop for commercial growers! If you have space to grow your own it is well worth doing so – they were one of my earliest gardening experiences and not at all difficult on a small scale. But will they have a place in the future of farming?
In the past strawberries could be very lucrative, but depended on a good fast route to market. Some of these ended along with Beeching’s cuts in railways but even without these another problem took hold – disease. Strawberries should not be grown in the same soil for more than 4 years, but when you have everything else in place – the perfect location for ripening plus a convenient distribution network, it was understandable that people were reluctant to call a halt to production until the soil could not sustain them any longer.
Pick-your-own then became the popular method of selling strawberries, and indeed some of these do still exist. If you can persuade the public to pick their own strawberries it gets around the problem of finding labour for this job. But somewhere along the line the public began to translate PYO as “please help yourself”. Not content just to sample a few berries to help decide which to pick, some even went as far as to drive off with a boot full that hadn’t been paid for.
It is now very rare to find strawberries grown in the ground. Nowadays they are usually grown in growbags at table top height, which both makes picking easier and also extends the growing season. These are also usually situated in polytunnels – protecting the strawberries from the elements but then requiring watering. These polytunnel “cities”, including caravans for pickers, are a blot on the landscape but it has been argued that they have some environmental benefit in that they require less chemical spraying than soil grown strawberries. From a taste point of view however, these forced strawberries have nothing like the depth of flavour that you get from the soil. The bags and plants are replaced annually – a huge expense in itself. One pick-your-own farm in my area switched to table top growing about a decade ago but tell me that next year they will be going back to growing in the soil because they are unlikely to cover the costs for next year’s grow bags from this year’s poor crop.
So is there anywhere that you can buy strawberries that taste as they once did? I have tasted some very good organic strawberries this year so it is still possible to find them if you can’t grow your own. Organic growing means that you won’t have the heavy pesticide residue found on mainstream commercial strawberries and they will have been grown in the soil on sound rotational principles. However, organic certification will not automatically guarantee you flavour – that will also depend on the variety grown, and the organic plants available do tend to be the same modern varieties that have been bred for commercial growing rather than the older more flavoursome varieties. It will also depend on the site on which they are grown – terroir is extremely evident in strawberries, which thrive best on south facing slopes with a slightly acidic, well draining soil. Ironically the pick-your-own mentioned above and The Community Farm where I tasted the organic strawberries are almost neighbours but the pick-your-own enjoys more of a southerly slope yet this advantage is lost when they do not grow in the soil. The grower at The Community Farm pointed out another important factor in flavour – the age of the plants. The flavour seems to develop the longer the plants are in the ground so that the four years old plants produce a notably more flavoursome strawberry than the two year olds. This of course is something that will also be lost in table-top growing where the plants are replaced annually along with the growing medium.
In addition to the influence on flavour that the growing site and method have my tastings have also revealed the following about varieties:
Older British varieties, e.g. Royal Sovereign, Cambridge Favourite, and Cambridge Late Pine, are from an era before commercial considerations such as shelf life and transportation became dominant in strawberry breeding programmes. Their texture is softer than modern varieties and I think this contributes greatly to the taste experience – as you squash them against the roof of your mouth the flavour floods over your tongue in a way not possible with modern “waxy” textured strawberries. For home gardeners looking for flavour rather than yield, these would be my preference.
Whilst it pains me to say it, you might also want to consider a French variety. Flavour has remained the prime consideration in their breeding programmes so that even commercially grown Gariguette strawberries from a supermarket have reasonable flavour. My favourite however is Mara des Bois, a perpetual fruiting variety giving you small quantities of fruit throughout the summer. It has been crossed with wild strawberries, so the fruit are smaller than modern commercial varieties but nowhere near as small, although with all the flavour of, the wild strawberry.
Of the modern British varieties only one has ever scored highly in tastings I have conducted – Honeoye. This stood head and shoulders above all other modern varieties, with a pleasing balance of sweetness and acidity, but I recommend it to you with some hesitation – it is not that easy to grow. In fact some pick-your-own farms had abandoned it either because of problems with disease or an unpleasant aftertaste that can occur if the soil doesn’t suit it. I have tried it in my own garden but it did not thrive here, nor give the exceptional flavour we had experienced in our tasting. But if you do seek out this variety, one final point to note is that it is not fully ripe until it is very dark red in colour, it almost looks over-ripe, which in itself could be a factor that led to it being abandoned at some pick-your-owns.
The future for strawberries
It sounds harsh to say so, but I am pleased that the failure of this year’s crop will lead to my nearest pick-your-own growing strawberries in the ground once again. And I think they would fit into the small mixed farms that the Campaign for Real Farming proposes as the model for farming in the future. Yes, they are a difficult crop in our climate, but as the seasonal luxury they once were, could be risked in a rotational cropping system, where the risk of a poor harvest in one crop in one year is spread across many different crops.
Recipes and Serving Suggestions
See here for my suggestions for serving the perfect strawberry.