Strawberries grew wild for centuries and were enjoyed by many Europeans, although much smaller in size than we have now. But they first became cultivated in France in the 1750s (leave it to those French). Like so many other fruits valued originally as medicinal and mentioned in ancient Roman writings, they are depicted in oil paintings during the 15th century by Renaissance artists (a little snacking on the side, perhaps?). Seems they were consumed as a panacea to depression (who can feel blue when you have sweet berries to nosh on?).
Gathered in the woods by early colonists, foodie president Thomas Jefferson experimented with different varieties in his vast gardens as early as 1789, serving them up at grand dinners to the delight of his guests. His frustration was the small size at that time, still a strain of the Alpine variety which he brought home from France. Fortunately, horticulturists and growers continued to work on producing a larger size and of course were eventually successful.
But Americans are not the only country which cherishes this delightful red fruit. They are a tradition at England’s Wimbledon annual tennis tournament, served with cream. In Italy, strawberries are a favorite gelato flavor. The Greeks like to dip them in sugar, then roll them in brandy. Japan still experiments with dozens of varieties, which were originally very expensive and available only for royalty. During the 1930s, their production was increased dramatically, and they now rank as one of the top growers in the world.
Needless to say, America’s love affair with the strawberry is legendary, as we far surpass any other country in production and usage, cranking out 1.5 million tons a year, a third of the entire world’s production. Translating into just over 9 pounds per American in consumption, here’s what tops the U.S. hit parade:
Jam – America’s favorite flavor
Shortcake – with biscuits or sponge cake, topped with whipped cream, a classic
Pie – either fresh (with a sugar glaze) or baked, often with rhubarb
Ice cream – in popular Neapolitan (with chocolate and vanilla) or by itself
Yogurt – fruit on the bottom or blended
Smoothies – blended and flavorful
Pairs well with bananas
Fresh – by themselves, sliced and sugared or as a topping
Chocolate-covered – a candy and fruit in one
Sliced – on breakfast cereal and pancakes
Hardy and easy to grow, the plants also make an attractive ground cover, although local critters like to sneak into backyards and devour the fruit when the coast is clear. They also freeze well and can be enjoyed year-round.
If you are fortunate to live in a region where strawberries are grown, an enjoyable outing is visiting a “pick your own” field, even though it’s tiring under a hot sun and puts a strain on the back, worth doing once (and all you can eat in the process). So make it a point to pick up a quart or two on your next visit to the local supermarket or farmers market. The best ones are fresh, ripe and flavorful.