Ripe, juicy, sweet and fragrant, that’s how we all like our strawberries. So why is it increasingly difficult to buy a strawberry that exhibits all of these desirable characteristics? The answer is very simple: it’s because the commercial growers are prioritising a quite different set of characteristics.
Thanks to the supermarkets we are able to buy strawberries pretty much all year round, although outside our conventional growing season these are mostly imported from Spain. A serious shortcoming of this long-distance out-of-season supply is the quality of the fruit itself. Varieties that are grown overseas for export to Britain are selected primarily for appearance, high yield and ability to withstand long distance transportation, rather than for flavour.
Strawberries for export are also picked before they are fully ripe so that they maintain a firm, healthy appearance when they are displayed on the supermarket shelves, bought and taken home by the consumer. A major drawback of this practice is that, unlike other fruit, strawberries do not continue to ripen after they are picked. The result is a strawberry that is a very poor echo of the real thing, by which I mean a fully ripened, freshly picked, sweet-scented home-grown strawberry.
One common problem with strawberries is grey mould, botrytis cinerea. I’ve never had this problem with my organically grown strawberries, but I do see it sometimes in those plastic boxes of commercially-grown strawberries purchased from supermarkets.
When growing your own you can minimise the risk of problems like grey mould through simple preventative measures, such as regularly clearing away dead plant material and keeping strawberry plants well-spaced. But this common-sense approach doesn’t have the same attraction when you are growing strawberries for profit rather than for pleasure, for quantity rather than quality. For a commercial grower every lost strawberry counts and the problem with, for example, giving plants adequate spacing is that it reduces overall yield. So many commercial growers have adopted techniques in which plants are grown much closer together. They then use fungicides and pesticides to help minimise losses to disease and pests, thereby maximising yields.
There are an astonishing number of approved fungicides and pesticides that can be used legally in the commercial growing of strawberries, and some of these are likely to be present in the strawberries you buy in the supermarket. The most recent government research, conducted by the Health & Safety Executive’s Pesticide Residues Committee, discovered traces of Fenhexamid, Iprodione, Pyrimethanil, Bupirimate and Cyprodinil (all fungicides) in strawberries grown commercially and sold in this country. None of the traces were at levels above that permitted, but do you really want to eat these added ingredients with your strawberries? If you don’t then the simple answer is to buy fresh, locally grown, organic strawberries. They will taste better too.
By growing my strawberries organically I accept there’s every chance I may lose a few each year to the birds and one or two to slugs. I minimise the risk of this by using netting to deter the birds and straw to protect the ripening fruits and deter slugs. The bottom line for me is that if there are still plenty of strawberries left for me to harvest then losing one or two isn’t really such an issue.
Now to a recipe.
In contrast to last week’s rather involved broad bean recipe, this week I’m posting a really quick and easy recipe that takes literally minutes. At its heart is the pairing of strawberries with French tarragon. It’s not an obvious flavour partnership but it’s one that works extremely well. The acidic sweetness of the strawberries seems to accentuate the liquorice/aniseed undertones of the tarragon (or maybe it’s the other way round). Either way, this recipe delivers a light and healthy way to start the day, containing as it does a dozen trace elements, vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K as well as Omega 3. Make sure you use French tarragon rather than the inferior Russian variety.
All of my recipes are based upon trial and error so don’t feel constrained by the quantities I’ve suggested – play around with the ingredients to suit your taste. Depending on the sweetness of your strawberries you may wish to add a little honey or maple syrup, but I prefer it as it comes.
strawberry, lime and tarragon smoothie
400ml soya milk
12 fresh, ripe organic strawberries, hulled
1 small ripe banana
1/2 tsp lime zest
40g macadamia nuts
1 tbsp fresh French tarragon, chopped
1. Blitz the macadamia nuts in an electric chopper. Alternatively wrap them loosely in cling film and gently bash with the end of a rolling pin. Either way, we want them to be reduced to a powdery pulp.
2. Place all of the ingredients into a blender and switch on. Blend until smooth. Pour into glasses and serve.