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"Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did," William Butler (1535-1618).
And doubtless Cupid's own 'tempting fruit'. Who doesn't love strawberries - one of the favoured fruits of lovers AND chefs!
The strawberry belongs to the Rosaceae or rose family, genus Fragaria and is not a berry at all. The 'fruit' are the small seeds embedded in a 'recipricol' and is what we eat. Prized for medicinal purposes, wild strawberries were known to ancient Romans and was also cultivated in France for its health benefits as a medicinal herb in the 13th century.
Strawberries are an excellent source of vitamin C and have, gram for gram, more of it than a citrus fruit. One good handful delivers the daily recommended allowance as well as a long list of other important nutrients such as potassium and fibre as well as providing 20% of our folic acid requirements. All that at only about 55 calories per serving of about a generous handful.
Looking for them...
Here in Spain, strawberries come in season in mid to late April through summer. When the season arrives in your part of the world, look for bright red, plump strawberries without any green or white areas. Red, juicy and fragrant, avoid the very large ones as these are often a bit hollow inside and tasteless. Instead, look for small to modest medium sized ones. Trust your nose and look for a fragrant scent indicating ripeness. Unlike other fruits, strawberries do not ripen once they are picked. So try to find ripe, aromatic ones and use them within a day or two.
Wild strawberries are a gourmet's delight, though some consumers do not appreciate the many 'seeds' covering the surface of these miniature berries. Still, they are often extremely fragrant - if picked at ripeness- but are highly perishable. Unless they come from local sources, they are often transported (and hence picked too early) from great distances and are beyond their peak once they reach the shops. If you are fortunate enough to find them, perhaps from a reputable gourmet shop, plan to use them the same day.
If you purchase them in baskets, look closely for signs of squashed berries that may have begun to mold. Pass over baskets that when you pick them up, leave a moist stain behind. Once home, take them out of their container and store in a single layer on paper toweling in the refrigerator. Rinse them just before you eat them.
Not only for dessert, they are a colourful addition to salads and pair well with balsamic vinegar or lemon. A fresh grating of black pepper brings out their flavour and adds an interesting dimension to your eating experience.
If you enjoy them simple and uncomplicated, marinate them for an hour with a favourite dessert wine such as Muscatel. Or just sprinkle them with a little sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice and cream (try them with a little vanilla sugar!). Used for tarts or as a filling or cake topping with mascarpone or other favourite such as crème fraîche or meringue or as a sauce, syrup, sorbet, ice cream or dipped in chocolate, strawberries are unmistakably public favourite fruit #1. Rhubarb and strawberries compliment each other and are delicious as a compote or pie/tart filling.
For a tantalizing tart change, simmer 250 ml. of balsamic vinegar until reduced to a syrup. Toss two handfuls of halved strawberries, add a grating of black pepper and allow to marinate for an hour before topping your next salad. What else goes with this? Goat cheese. Place a slice on a bed of rucula or lamb's lettuce and top the cheese with this mixture for a stunning and delicious appetizer.
Trivia: The World Capitol of Strawberries is in Wepion, Belgium where there is also a strawberry museum. However, the greatest exporter of strawberries is Spain with a growing season from March through July. Spain exported over 340,000 tons in 1999 and will most likely far exceeded that in 2003. It is no wonder with our weather that gives us also two harvests of oranges and lemons. The bulk of Spain's strawberry export goes to traditional EU markets of Germany, France and Italy as well as Switzerland.
See the dessert section of the Recipe Collection for a small selection of suggestions.
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The Epicurean Table www.epicureantable.com © 2006
Patricia Conant, columnist and food writer
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