Strawberries in this country used to be a brief, sublime pleasure - available for just a few months each summer. Now we can buy them on Christmas Day, airfreighted over hundreds of miles.
May is the beginning of the British strawberry season, which now lasts five to six months. Quality has never been better, and growers are now prioritising flavour over looks.
There are other riffs on the classic strawberry, too. The French are fond of their fragrant Gariguette.
Over in Belgium and The Netherlands, they grow the strasberry - a strange-looking fruit with a hint of raspberry. (Try wholesaler Gilgrove on the market if you fancy trying them).
And let's not forget the wild woodland strawberry - less showy but with a flavour that's second to none.
> Strawberries are herbaceous perennials in the Rosaceae family, which includes apples and pears. The plants are self-fertile, but the quality of the crop is improved by pollinating insects.
> One key trait for different varieties is the degree of branching. The first flower develops the largest "King" berry. Secondary branches of flowers produce smaller fruit, and so on – a key consideration when grading fruit.
> Back in Victorian times, English strawberries were grown in the ground and mainly available for just a month or two around June. Now a mixture of modern varieties and growing techniques allows them to be grown from April to the end of October or even beyond. (A branch of Tesco smashed the record this year by selling the first fruits on February 22nd).
> It's not the seeds that you see on the outside of the fruit. In fact, these are achenes - the plant's ovaries, with a tiny seed inside this structure.
Growing and harvesting
Strawberries are widely grown worldwide, but the British crop has a reputation for excellent flavour. There are many leading UK growers, including Hugh Lowe Farms, Lower Reule Farm, Mansfields and many more.
Typically production is on "table tops", which are raised troughs. These provide many benefits, including the ability to pick fast and efficiently without the need to bend down. The table tops run inside polytunnels and, less commonly, greenhouses - which allow for the earliest and latest crops. Some growers also cultivate strawberries on Mypex-covered beds at ground level. The pictures below are from Hugh Lowe Farms.
For growers, the key to success lies in meticulous planning. They choose varieties that provide a long cropping season.
At Hugh Lowe Farms, around 60% are "everbearers". These types of strawberry are not influenced by day length and are designed to crop continually (but less heavily) throughout the season.
The remainder are "June bearers", which crop more heavily for a short space of time. These form their flowers in autumn for the next year and can be subtly manipulated by chilling the plants to trick them into dormancy.
"We have some great new varieties," explains Marion Regan, who runs Hugh Lowe Farms. "Our mainstay at this time of year is still the excellent locally bred Malling Centenary, but we will soon have the new varieties Zara and Katrina, and we are already picking the premium sweet-tasting Driscolls Elizabeth."
Hugh Lowe Farms operates over 750 hectares. The business dedicates one fifth to soft fruit production and sells around 4,000 tonnes of strawberries per year. One million berries will be served up at this year’s Wimbledon tennis tournament alone.
Table top production is more hygienic and reduces rots and moulds, which are often spread by rain splash. They also allow for precision watering and feeding, which helps to minimise inputs and water use.
Polytunnels protect the crop and allow the pickers to work in all weathers, which is essential if a business is to maintain a constant supply of fresh fruit.
On the Market
You'll find a bamboozling choice of strawberries on the market. So how do you select the best? At time of writing, there are crops from Britain, Belgium, France, Spain and The Netherlands. You often find 20 x 400g punnets in a box. 1 kilo boxes from the Continent are also popular. Smaller berries are ideal for patisserie and often have superior flavour. You may find berries with longer stalks, which are ideal for dipping.
Here are some top buying tips from the expert wholesalers and traders on the market:
> Don't try and buy British on a Monday morning. Growers tend not to pick on Sunday, as labour costs are higher.
> "Get here early," says Jo Oakden at French Garden. "I had two or three pallets but they bounced out straight away."
> "Check the variety, look for good colour," advises Bob Padley at P & I Fruits. "I'd always go for English, to be honest. They generally look better than the Dutch - it's not just the season."
> "Remember 'The P's' - price, presentation, product and the person selling," says grocer Darren Cox.
Strawberries pair well with basil, green shiso, mint, chocolate, yoghurt, ice cream and champagne. A classic trick is to sprinkle the fruit with a few drops of quality balsamic vinegar. At Bocca di Lupo, a regional Italian restaurant in Soho, they might offer wild strawberries with lemon and sugar - a dish from the region of "Heaven", according to their menu.
How about this for creative flair? Using frais de bois, this is the work of Jimmy Mornet, chef pâtissier at Park Hyatt Paris Vendôme.
Chef Rick Dingen has gone for more minimalist approach.
This romantic meringue is via Natalia Muskala.
While chef Marcin Blok pairs tiny slivers of strawberry with raw salmon.