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Hilde Lee: Strawberries grew sweeter and left their wild past behind

Hilde Lee: Strawberries grew sweeter and left their wild past behind

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Strawberries are relatively new on the food scene. They are not one of the foods prevalent in Ancient Greek or Roman cuisine. How did that little red berry get its name? Much of its history can be traced to Europe from about the 15th century.

Strawberries were one of the first packaged foods sold in the 16th century in England. They were packaged to take home in cone-shaped straw baskets — hence the name “strawberries.” The name also came from the fact that straw often was laid around the plants to protect the berries from pests in the soil.

Strawberries grew wild in middle and northern Europe, but offered little food value in exchange for the effort needed to gather them. Also, their period of ripeness was short — about six weeks — and they did not lend themselves to preservation, nor did they improve with cultivation.

Strawberry cultivation first took place in France in the late 1300s. According to food historians, King Charles V had strawberries planted in his royal gardens. They also were planted in the gardens of the Duchess of Burgundy, and in a hospital garden in the north of France. However, there was no domestication of the strawberry plant at that time. Wild strawberry plants were merely transplanted to these gardens.

What all of a sudden made these red berries popular in the 15th century? By then, strawberries had become popular and were being sold by street vendors in London. They had become the “in” thing. A century later, they also were being sold on the streets of Paris with a warning that the berries were fragile and should be eaten as soon as possible.

From then on, the strawberry became a part of herbal medicine. Strawberry leaves were boiled for a tea to relieve gastric distress. Ripe strawberries were eaten to relieve hot flashes and redness of the face. Women added strawberry juice to their bathwater to make their skin soft. On average, 22 pounds of crushed strawberries were used for each bath.

Some food historians say that strawberries were such pleasant medicine that many people devised ways to eat them. Women particularly enjoyed the berries topped with cream, and men favored them topped with wine. By the early 1600s, strawberries were being cultivated all over Europe.

One of the first mentions of strawberries as food was in the household records of the English King Henry VIII (1491-1547). He had a great fondness for these berries. It is not too difficult to conjure up an image of the overweight King Henry reclining in a large chair, draped in a fur-lined robe, devouring bowls full of dainty strawberries. They were exorbitantly expensive at that time, as they grew wild and were much smaller than the cultivated ones of today. Strawberries were considered a remedy for gout in those days, a disease afflicting the king.

Despite King Henry’s example, strawberries lost favor as a gout curative. In the 16th century, doctors advised their patients to avoid eating too many fruits and vegetables, as they had come to believe that these foods were unhealthy if eaten in abundance. However, John Gerard, a London surgeon of that period, believed that they were health-giving. He cultivated more than 2,000 strawberry plants in his garden. His writings state that strawberry leaves soothed wounds, strengthened the gums and “fastneth the teeth.”

Gerard also recommended distilling strawberry water and drinking it with white wine. This concoction, he maintained “is good against the passion of the heart, reviving the spirits, and making the heart merry.” I wonder if it was the strawberries or the wine!

The existence of wild strawberries in North America was first recorded by Jacques Cartier in 1534. He reported seeing large wild strawberries in Canada. Almost a hundred years later, strawberry plants were taken to Europe from the American colonies. Strawberry cultivation and propagation became an avid hobby of the English nobility, who vied for the honor of producing the largest and most aromatic berries.

One of the strawberry species was discovered in the early 1700s, when a Frenchman, Amedee Francois Frezier, was sent to South America on a spying mission. The purpose of the mission has long been forgotten, but Frezier became intrigued with the deep red, large strawberries he found in Chile. Frezier smuggled some plants out of the country, and they were planted in the king’s gardens in Paris.

Tt was inevitable that, once the South American species of strawberries was on the Continent, it should meet its North American counterpart — the Virginiana species, which became popular for its large size and prolific fruiting.

In the United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s, strawberries were being grown primarily in home gardens. If they were available in the markets, it meant that they were grown nearby. For example, in Philadelphia in the early 1800s, it also was fashionable to frequent the city’s many “strawberry gardens” to eat the delectable berries on the spot.

One night in June of 1847, the Erie Railroad used its milk train to bring 80,000 baskets of strawberries to New York City, which quickly became the largest market in the world for this fruit. In 1851, James Wilson developed a heavy-yield strawberry, which made growing the fruit more profitable. By 1880, there were 100,000 acres of strawberries under cultivation in the United States, compared to only 1,400 at the beginning of the century.

Today, no other fruit yields more food per acre in a short time than the strawberry. Seventy-five percent of all strawberries consumed in the United States are grown in California, with an expected harvest of 1.5 billion pounds annually. Florida, the next-largest-producing state, produces 4 to 5 million trays — only as much as California harvests in a week during peak season.

Strawberries have a strange and unique structure. The seeds, which are on the outside, are the true fruits of the plant. The fleshy berry to which the seeds are attached is an enlarged, softened receptacle. It corresponds to the small white cone that remains on the stem of a raspberry when the fruit is picked. The seeds of a strawberry are small and not as bothersome as those of the raspberry or blackberry.

My favorite strawberry dessert is a Strawberry Pie. It uses a graham cracker crust and has a light gelatin whipped topping. Let me know what you think after ou try the pie. The email address is at the bottom of the article.

Strawberry Pie

» 1 (4-ounce) package strawberry gelatin

» ½ (8-ounce) container frozen dessert topping (such as Cool Whip), thawed

» 2 cups strawberries, hulled and cut into thick slices

» 1 (6-ounce) graham cracker crust (ready-made)

Place the gelatin in a bowl and pour 1 ⅔ cup boiling water over it. Stir to dissolve the gelatin. Let cool until it starts to congeal. (To speed up the congealing process, place the bowl with the slightly cooled gelatin into a larger bowl with ice water. It will take about 10 minutes to start congealing.)

Remove ½ cup of the slightly congealed gelatin to another bowl. Fold in the thawed dessert topping. Then spread this mixture into the graham cracker crust. Add the strawberries to the remaining gelatin and spoon on top of the pie. Chill for 3 hours. Serves 6.

Hilde G. Lee is a food writer and co-author of “Virginia Wine Country III” with her husband, Allan Lee. She can be reached at hildeglee@yahoo.com.

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