Few foods evoke the best of an English summer like the strawberry. Come June, supermarket shelves groan under the weight of tonnes of juicy red fruits, but while these look appealing, they rarely smell or taste anything like the fruits of our childhood, plucked from the plant and eaten still warm from the hot summer sun. Armed with a few tips, though, you’ll be able to sniff out the best commercial fruit from their refrigerated counterparts.
Ripeness is key. When strawberries are red, mature, and at their nutritional peak, all the naturally occurring chemicals that contribute to their marvellous flavour and aroma – furanones, aldehydes, alcohols, sulphur compounds, phenols, flavonols, esters, terpenes – reach their most potent.
You can’t beat strawberries direct from the garden or allotment, but berries sold ready picked in farm shops are usually pretty ripe too – growers can afford to leave them to mature properly because they are selling them direct to consumers. If you can find a Pick Your Own fruit farm, then you can personally select the ripest. Go for fruits that are vivid red through and through without any white or green ‘shoulders’ under the stem.
Ripe berries are fragile and have a short shelf-life, so growers tend to supply supermarkets with slightly under-ripe fruits to avoid returns and rejections. This is particularly true of strawberries imported from Europe and further afield, which are picked ‘green and backward’ to withstand the journey. British-grown supermarket berries are generally riper than imports because they have less distance to travel.
But be warned: some strawberries, however ripe, will never taste of much. This is because they are of a variety that has been designed, not for flavour, but to meet other criteria including firmness, shine, transportability and disease resistance. The classic example is Elsanta, a modern Dutch variety that dominates our shelves. Recently, though, consumer demand for more flavourful, scented strawberries has seen Elsanta’s grip on UK strawberry growing weaken and better-tasting varieties come to the fore.
Revival of the tastiest
The old guard here includes British heritage varieties renowned for their eating quality, such as Royal Sovereign, Hapil, Cambridge Favourite, Cambridge Vigour and Cambridge Late Pine. Commercial growers rarely choose them because, when grown on a large scale, they are prone to disease. Instead they are concentrating on newer varieties, such as Alice, Symphony, Florence, Sonata, Alice, Eros, Honeyoye and Pegasus, which have more flavour than Elsanta, but better disease-resistance than traditional varieties.
Whatever their variety, strawberries taste better during their natural growing season. In the UK and Ireland, that’s a six-week to two-month period, between late May and the end of July. Growers have developed techniques to extend this short season, growing strawberries under plastic tunnels and drip-feeding them nutrients. The proof is in the tasting, and I don’t think that these high-tech strawberries can ever match the fragrance and flavour of the more seasonal, soil-grown sort, picked when naturally ripe.
A dusting of sugar and a sprinkling of lemon enhance strawberries’ flavour. But when you alight on a bowl of these juicy, heavenly scented berries, you won’t be able to resist popping them straight into your mouth, as nature intended.