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… The strawberry of the Americas

29 April 2020
Beneath its tame exterior, the strawberry is an adventuress. At least its grandmother was… A sort of James Bond girl before her time.

But as a strawberry, how do you avoid betraying your country when one of her majesty’s (Louis XIV that is, not the Queen of England) spies, a certain Frézier, asks you to follow him to the other side of the world? Amédée François Frézier was sent by Louis XIV on a reconnaissance mission along the west coast of South America to find out about Spanish colonial activity there.

A bit of a botanist himself, on arriving in Chile in 1712 he came across a considerably larger version of the strawberry already known at that time in France; the small fruit we now refer to as wild  trawberries. He brought back a few examples and in 1714 entrusted them to Jussieu for him to  ntroduce into the Jardin du Roi, now known as the Jardin des Plantes. It was from these plants, crossed with indigenous varieties and another big fruit originating from Virginia in North America and  ntroduced in England not long beforehand, that the strawberries we know today were born. The  dventuress has given rise to a prolific lineage: there are now no fewer than 600 varieties of  trawberry….from the most tasteless to the most fragrant…

Amédée François Frézier

The strawberry is not actually a fruit though! The fruits are the achenes, those little seeds that cover its surface. The strawberry is merely the flower’s fleshy receptacle. The strawberry likes the sun, which gives it its fragrance and sweet taste, but not dryness: it thrives in regions influenced by a maritime climate. In France, it has been the making of Plougastel, where it has been grown since the 18th century, and in Belgium in the town of Wépion. Back in France, the south-west, with its warmth and oceanic climate, is also ideal.

The strawberry is fragile and does not travel well. Agronomic research has studied this problem in great depth. For a long while, this gave rise to hardy, but tasteless strawberries, of which Spanish ones are unfortunately the lasting example, before the return of the more succulent varieties: the gariguette, created by the INRA near Avignon, the mara des bois created in Sologne by Marionnet, brother of the famous wine-grower, and many others such as the elsanta, ciflorette, darselect and charlotte. All the aforementioned are large fruit varieties, but “wild strawberries” are still also grown. Their concentrated aroma is sought after for flavouring sorbets and desserts.

Bénédict Beaugé