A Storm of Strawberries
What a long strange trip it’s been. What started as a simple tasting project, to list and describe common supermarket varieties of strawberry, has ended revealing so much more than I expected.
At home in Wales wild strawberries grow on the bank of the track that leads to our house. They cling to the muddy steep sides, nestling under ferns, stitchwort and brambles. On the way home from the school car, on sunny afternoons in June, our children loved to pick the tiny scarlet berries, tight little packets of fragrance and sweet acidic strawberry flavour, smears of pink on their muddy palms.
The wild strawberry is Frutti di Bosco in Italy, picked from the woods and served at the end of a long meal, the Italians have their priorities straight in matters of taste and savour.
It’s from this wild and mysterious origin that all cultivated strawberries come. But the cultivated strawberry is laden with meaning and especially with luxury associations: it’s the accompaniment to tennis-white, achievement-ridden, height of summer Wimbledon; a partner to champagne; dipped in chocolate for posh dinners; or tumbling out of the cream on a magnificent Pavlova.
Perhaps it is these privileged associations that keeps the strawberry selling so well, despite many varieties offered by supermarkets being so very, very tasteless. The luscious and glistening, scarlet form brings a spurt of strong colour and an instant feeling of generosity and largesse.
Strawberries are a winner. Thus they are in the supermarket’s top 10 best selling products. And when a product is this popular you can be sure some shenanigans are going to happen, the commercial pressure is just too great. Strawberries are one of the dirty dozen, and often top of the list of the twelve fruit and vegetable products on which the most chemicals and pesticides are lavished.
Most of the varieties below have been developed in the last 10 years specifically for supermarkets. Now strawberries are available year round, despite their proper local seasonality being during the height of summer. Delivery of this objective is, I venture, worth challenging from an environmental and also aesthetic point of view. The supermarket buyers’ priorities will be many, with visual appeal top of the list. When we buy, we buy with our eyes.
Next comes shelf life, what's needed commercially is a strawberry that can still look good many days after picking. Price is important too, because we buy more of what’s cheap and that means the variety has to be heavy cropping for the economics to stack up for the farmer, and this might mean volume and mass created by water, or growing varieties that crop heavily at the expense of taste. Flavour only enters the criteria if demanded by customers or to get a marketing advantage, such as ‘taste the difference’ or similar branding exercises.
And how a strawberry is grown will markedly influence taste. My bête noire strawberry, Elsanta, is usually tasteless and watery. But a punnet grown by Rosedene farms was respectably delicious. Care and attention to what nurtures taste pays off. I love strawberries, luscious, sometimes tasting of sherbet. I love them intensified in an ice cream with balsamic vinegar, or marinated with a dusting of sugar and a little grappa, or simply in a bowl with ice cream, or crumbling sticky meringue, or in a double sponge cake, soft and bursting with cream, tumbling out of the filling like Nell Gwynne out of her blouse.
But I want strawberries that taste of something, in the right season. So I’ve prepared this little guide and encourage you to ask questions, not only of origin but also of grower. Let’s share details of those who do good work, and also who to avoid because they seem focussed mostly on profit over taste and quality. Please join the debate and put your comments below.
Eve’s delight - 2.4 – 4.5 cm
A Jane Austen strawberry of delicate proportions and a pale-ish orange red colour, fading to almost white under the leaves (calyx). The flowers are large and often fragments of dried petal remain on the fruit. Smooth skinned and flawless. May be hulled.
Sweet and tender with full, sweet strawberry flavour. Good acidity.
Breeding: 2010 Edward Vinson Ltd. Kent, a day-neutral variety that bears berries continuously through entire season regardless of day length.
Prize - 4 – 6 cm
A handsome, large, uniformly orange red strawberry. Medium sized yellow-green seeds, widely spaced. Hard to hull.
Watery and weak taste, no detectable taste of strawberry, low acidity and sweetness.
Breeding: 2015 California, bred for form and colour
Malling Centenary – 3.5 – 4.5 cm
Malling Centenary is evenly crimson polished and shiny, with a slim, pointed and elegant shape. Small calyx. Seeds are also small, deeply indented and widely spaced. Flesh red/pink fading to white.
Fruity floral scent and a sweet, strawberry-ish flavour. Good acidity.
Breeding: 2012 East Malling Research & The Strawberry Breeding Club.
Sonata – 4 – 5 cm
A large, indented berry with prominent leaves. Colour is a strong red fading a little towards calyx. Large orange seeds. Pale flesh.
Little smell, crunchy flesh, medium sweet but with an almost turnip-y quality. No detectable strawberry flavour, but a weak, watery acidity.
Breeding: 2003 Holland. A cross between Elsanta and Polka, bred for large cropping and disease resistance.
Driscoll’s Elisabeth – 3.4 – 4.5 cm
An orange-red large-ish strawberry with a slightly dumpy shape. Widely spaced orange/green seeds. Can be hulled.
Sweet and strawberry-ish flavour with good acidity.
Breeding: 2016 Driscoll’s, California. This berry is called Elisabeth named for our Queen Elisabeth in Jubilee year, and has it’s name registered by the breeder Driscoll’s as a registered trade name. It is an early variety.
Murano – 3.4 – 4 cm
A dark, evenly red strawberry of slim, pointed shape. Internal colour red. Long, yellow widely spaced seeds. Does not hull.
Firm flesh, with good acidity and sweet taste. Medium flavour of strawberry.
Breeding: a day-neutral variety that bears berries continuously through entire season. Bred for Sainsbury, breeder unknown
Driscoll’s Serena - 2.5 – 3 cm
Evenly red medium strawberry with plump shape and glossy skin. Large calyx, which if firmly attached to the flesh so impossible to hull. Seeds widely spaced, yellow green, each in a slight depression.
Moderately sweet, with some strawberry flavour and acidity, but overall fails to convince.
Breeding: introduced 2013 Driscoll’s, California
Fleurette (perfectly imperfect)
Randomly sized, small berries with irregular characteristics. Pale orange red. Prominent seeds. Large calyx and impossible to hull. These berries are from Tesco’s ‘Perfectly Imperfect’ range so are not indicative of a full-grown berry, which has a much more conventional appearance.
This is an early season strawberry. Complex herbaceous flavour, sweetly strawberry-ish.
Breeding: Goossens Flevoplant Holland. Introduced to UK 2015 French
Elsanta - 2.5 – 3.5 cm
This is the strawberry I have always avoided. It has been the staple supermarket strawberry for many years and often pumped full of water to increase yields.
Evenly red medium strawberry with plump shape and glossy skin. Large leaf calyx. Seeds widely spaced, yellow green, each in a slight depression. Will not hull, leaves firmly attached.
These were quite sweet and strawberry-ish but tending to watery finish. The small ones (perfectly imperfect) grown by team green growers were more intense.
Breeding: Bred in Holland by unknown, but said to be a variety more than 30 years old.