Not all strawberries are made equal. Here’s how to get the best of them
Last night I bought a punnet of lovely looking big strawberries, planning to enjoy them for dessert after our simple fish taco dinner. Prices are starting to drop now the season is in full swing, and I was eagerly anticipating gorging myself on their lush, juicy sweetness.
I washed my ruby treasures and started to slice them into a bowl. They were entirely red on the outside so I assumed they would be beautifully ripe (usually unripe strawberries are white or greenish-white on the base). But as I sliced them, I discovered a hard, hollow, white inner core. They were so firm that I could drop them on the floor without them incurring any bruising. They had zero fragrance and almost no flavour. Talk about disappointing.
So what is going on here?
The strawberry belongs to the genus fragaria, derived from the Latin “fragrans”, which means sweet-smelling. A member of the rose family, strawberries are native to Europe, North America and Chile. Most strawberries grown up until the late 1700s were selections of these species and the fruit was smaller than a 10c coin. If you have ever tasted a tiny woodland strawberry or the small French mara des bois strawberries, you will realise why this species was named fragaria. These fruit are intensely aromatic and wildly flavoursome.
Since then, science has dramatically changed the strawberry. For the grower, there have been huge improvements in yield, pest and disease resistance, size and keeping quality. But that incredible fragrance and sweet tangy flavour are getting harder to find. Frustratingly, we can buy named varieties of strawberry plants, but the fruit are sold merely as “strawberries”, with no indication as to the variety.
Strawberries have a very high water content and collapse on cooking and, if frozen, on thawing. Slow-roasting is a great way to intensify their sweetness. Sprinkle them with a little caster sugar and drizzle with balsamic glaze before roasting them for an hour or so in a low oven (about 130C) until they soften.
Both fresh and cooked strawberries make a fabulous puree. I like to add a little sugar and lemon juice or orange blossom water (available at speciality food stores, this brings out the fruit’s flavour and adds an elusive floral quality). Strawberry puree will keep in the fridge for a day or two (longer if using cooked berries) and is divine drizzled over vanilla icecream or a cream-covered pavlova, folded through Eton Mess or folded in equal parts through whipped cream for a delicious old-fashioned fool.
Crunchy nut clusters are the perfect foil for sweet, juicy fresh strawberries in this easy dessert — or even breakfast — dish.
There’s a lot of icing sugar in this heavenly icecream recipe, but that’s what ensures a silky smooth texture. It’s important to blend it thoroughly or you’ll get icy chunks of berry through the frozen mixture.