Berry disappointing


Of all the soft fruits of the British summer, which we live for and long for during the dreary rhubarb stretch from winter to spring, strawberries are the ones that underperform as consistently as the British summer itself. How the heart yearns for them to be good.

StrawberriesThey have a tremendous weight of responsibility on their bright red shoulders, admittedly, being the first outriders of the balmy weather to come, but here's June and guess what? They're pants all over again.

The perfect strawberry should be a little heart-shaped cushion of scarlet loveliness, red as communism, softly yielding in texture, and bursting with sweet, ripe, aromatic, luscious flavour. What we actually get are anaemic monsters the size of Wales, with a white, unripened vegetal hard core, tasting a little like a parboiled turnip, selling for £4 a box on the high street.

Personally, I've always observed the June rule with strawberries. Buy them any earlier than that, and you're asking for trouble. Driving through the West Country in April, we saw farmers in vans selling their forced varieties by the roadside at 50p a punnet, and felt that the queues lining up for them were welcome to them. But then June arrives, and they're no better.

We tell ourselves it's been an on-off spring, that if you were a strawberry, you wouldn't feel like behaving when, despite a promising April, there were still overnight frosts in May. It doesn't console us, or excuse the fact that strawberries - like trains, planes, automobiles and running whelk stalls - are one of the things the British can't do any more.

StrawberriesThe supermarkets see the domestic soft fruit season as the excuse for a prolonged exercise in customer-gouging, often charging more for them than they did for the imported ones they were flogging at Christmas. All strawberry varieties have apparently resolved into the one monotonous offering of Elsanta, a Michael Bublé of a variety, bland, uniform, sweet but flat in taste, largely because it's been over-watered to increase the yield. There is some chance of finding better varieties at pick-your-own farms. Look for Mara des Bois, Honeoye, Symphony or Florence.

As with other fruits, we have been trained by the exigencies of big retail turnover and shelf-life into eating strawberries underripe, so that we have forgotten what they ought to taste like. When the berry is ripe, the stalk should come away easily in one piece, not have to be dug out with your fingernails. It should be just at the point of squishiness, requiring careful handling not to smoosh it, or perhaps smooshing it quite happily when adding it to lightly whipped cream or thick yogurt.

If you haven't the energy to pick your own, try the farmers' markets. You may still get charged the precious earth for them, but at least they might be the real thing. Taste before you buy. And no matter what you end up paying, you can at least be sure it will be less than the poor suckers at Wimbledon are.

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