As summer approaches, the roads around this part of the world spring up with roadside stalls selling strawberries. Wexford, in the ‘sunny south east’ is known for this summer crop and I am fortunate in living in walking distance of a strawberry farm. In fact, we made the effort to get out and walked down for a coffee on Sunday to see if the season had started and I walked back balancing a big punnet of fruits. Amazingly, most of them made it back to the house and did not get eaten on the way. Good as they are, this farm, in common with others, grows the crop in growing bags, on shoulder-height structures in polytunnels and the taste varies with the cultivar chosen for various crops which ripen from now till the last in September. I find it odd that they never say what the variety is, but they do taste better for having to walk and get them, knowing they have been grown on site.
But they don’t taste like the strawberries of my childhood. Strawberries have been expertly bred for many purposes but eating quality and taste are not among them. I can see why we buy hard strawberries in plastic punnets lined with bubble plastic (down the road they are in card punnets) because I remember working in the greengrocer when I was at school. Strawberries arrived in flats (shallow boxes) and were tipped into the window display. They were then scooped into bags and not one would be perfect when you bought them. I hated cleaning up the display at the end of the day, a sticky mess buzzing with wasps. There was not even a fridge in the place and the cream we stocked to sell with them was ‘sterilised cream’ – what happened to that – it was strange white, thick, chalky stuff.
But back to now. Although our haul of local strawberries was delicious, it was nothing compared to the crop that is ripening at home. I have three strawberry cultivars in the garden, and three more in pots to try out. The main three are in raised beds in the garden and are in bloom but I also planted some in a bed in the polytunnel for an early crop. These will be allowed to make runners and I will root these and plant some growing bags later in summer to try to grow them as the big boys do. And the variety is ‘Gariguette’. This is the classic French strawberry although it only dates to 1970. The fruits are elongated and classic pale scarlet rather than deep red. They are soft and melting, and loved by slugs, hence my plan to grow them off the ground. But the taste! They are incredibly aromatic and have an amazing taste, rather more acid than most and heavenly sweet when fully ripe, but a bit tart if not. They not only taste amazing but they smell – of strawberries.
‘Gariguette’ is not very good for commercial growers, so you can’t buy these in shops. You have to grow them yourself. It does not crop heavily and the berries are easily damaged, though they manage to get them to market in France. By growing a few in the tunnel and a few outside I hope to get a longer season though this is always an early variety. I am sure it will make wonderful jam but it is very unlikely that any will get to be cooked. One I have to try, but I can’t grow them all at once, is ‘Mara des Bois’ which is also said to taste amazing, with flavour of alpine strawberries. It is ever-bearing too.