Friday, January 24, 2014

Strawberries in port

It's a simple recipe, from Jean Anderson's The Food of Portugal. Steep fresh sliced strawberries in sugar -- a few teaspoons, or to taste -- and one quarter cup of ruby port. Eat. Mrs. Beeton essentially agrees, in her book written more than a hundred years before, but her recipe calls for sherry or madeira, and she means you to preserve the strawberries by the quart "in perfectly dry glass bottles." Preserve, for how long? She doesn't say. Perhaps her readers understood, one preserved them until the following winter.

Strawberries are a strange fruit. People rave about how good they are, and snap them up when they are on sale at the grocery store this time of year, oh how wonderful, such a harbinger of spring -- I snap them up too, two quarts for $5 -- and yet they are so confoundedly sour. Madeleine Kamman in The New Making of Cook says sternly, "Unless you grow your own, you have absolutely no idea what a truly delicious strawberry tastes like." Mass production of varieties sturdy enough to withstand shipping and to look good and red right now has resulted in berries which are "nothing more than bundles of colored fibers with almost no taste whatsoever." She suggests starting your own strawberry patch from heirloom seeds. As fragaria are prolific, "you will soon find yourself" overrun with strawberries.

She may be right about that. My own experiments with strawberry plants in pots on the porch steps was not a success, but the confinement to pots may have been my mistake. No sooner would a small white berry begin to blush the remotest shade of pink, than overnight some hungry creature with a brain to think with would eat it. Bird, rabbit, squirrel, who knows what. I gave up, just as I have given up with poppies, which have also failed to survive predators here. But, if you give your strawberry plants more room, you may find, as Madeleine claims and as the first settlers in Virginia discovered, that before too long you are tripping over all that deliciousness, tripping over the "heart seed berry," wuttahimneash, as the Indians are supposed to have called them. In his book Food Waverley Root describes the strawberry patch on his own farm exactly answering to the account of the fruit given by "one of the first Englishmen to reach Maryland: 'wee can not sett downe foote but tred on strawberries.' "

He, too, says the wildly growing kind are delicious beyond expression, but too small and fragile even to be picked and brought into the house. They must be consumed on the spot, in the fields or woods. And yet, throughout his long article on this, "one of the most popular fruits in the world," he also records both old opinions that the cultivated strawberry was not much of an improvement on the wild kind, and old recipes matching the strawberry with something which would, do we dare say, improve its flavor. Circa 1540 sugar, cream, and wine all were called upon (wine for men, cream for women). Circa 1860 Mrs. Beeton agrees with this too, and includes among her strawberry recipes one for a pint of berries dressed with 2 ounces of sugar and some Devonshire cream. "Most delicious," she says.

It's a quibble, but I wonder: if cultivated strawberries are not an improvement on the wild kind, then how good really are the wild kind? (Define "not an improvement." Does that mean just literally what it says, or does it also mean "much worse"?) And why all the sugar and cream in centuries past, when presumably everybody's strawberries were much closer to their delectable woodsy origins? Have they perhaps always been confoundedly sour, and we just don't want to admit it because they look so good? Waverley Root writes that strawberry seeds are the "scarcest finds" of any berry seeds at Stone Age sites. For whatever reason, even primitive man apparently didn't eat them much, when they were at their wildest. Tiny, fragile, hard to find, impossible to preserve and alogether too much trouble for the hungry caveman's reward, Root suggests. Though he doesn't mention sourness.

I do still snap them up during the spring time sales. They are thirst quenching and pretty, and when we dip them in sugar they taste good. The cynic in me thinks that what they actually do is lend a pleasant red tartness to the sugar. And they reassure me that at least with this, the kids are Eating Some Fruit. If Waverley Root's information circa 1980 is still correct, and it seems to be, what we are eating and what most people eat around the world -- sugared, creamed, port-ed, madeira-ed, or not -- is Fragaria ananassa, a hybrid of two varieties, Fragaria chiloensis and Fragaria virginiana. The two were mated, so to speak, by accident in the 1740s in gardens along the coast of Brittany when old F. chiloensis plants, imported from Chile by a French scientist and mysteriously barren for years, suddenly received new plant-y neighbors in the form of F. virginiana. At long last, the female version of one strawberry had met the male version of another, and F. ananassa was born.

Whether the offspring is a credit to its parents is another quibble. But never mind. Have some port -- hunt for the gourmet's delight, fraises de bois -- hunt for the seeds of F. vesca or F. moschata, both ancient, wild and the only types to grow true from seed, and both, strangely, "disliked by birds."

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