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Strawberries and Other Fruits: The Taste of English Summer

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Strawberries and Other Fruits: The Taste of English Summer

Summer just wouldn’t be the same without the enjoyment of a bowl of strawberries drizzled with cold cream. In fact, the English appetite for strawberries is so strong that an incredible 140,000 portions are served up every year at Wimbledon.

The strawberry started to become popular in England in the 16th century. The final courses of big meals in that era would feature a host of sweet desserts, including marmalades and confits. These were opportunities for wealthy hosts to show off their wealth through the use of luxurious ingredients like sugar and spices, which were considered expensive at the time.

The strawberries at that time were the wild variety Alpine which are still grown in the UK today. The strawberry also had a role as a cordial, thanks to the smell of their leaves, although there was a time during the Tudor period when raw fruit, including strawberries, had been considered dangerous.

Sugar was considered an ideal partner for fruit as it was considered that the sweetness balanced out the cold and moist ‘humours’ of the body. These medieval beliefs held that certain foods were attached to different humours so a balanced diet was necessary for good health. One of the ways to counter the effects of fruit was therefore to cook it wine and spices in the form of a pottage

The ancestor of the modern strawberry arrived in England during the 16th century, imported from the US. These Virginia strawberries were sweeter than our own wild variety but were still small. But in the 18th century, it was cross bred with the larger Chilean strawberry and the modern strawberry was born.

By the early 19th century even larger and juicier fruits were being produced and England gained a reputation for its strawberries, and they became a staple of the Victorian kitchen garden. The  Victorians were avid horticulturists and continued to create new varieties of strawberry such as the Royal Sovereign in 1892 which was considered to be unrivaled in flavour and appearance.

At this time, strawberries were still served at the end of a meal, but were more likely to be enjoyed fresh or preserved in the form of a jam. We also see fresh strawberries and cream starting to appear on menus. French chef Auguste Escoffier, who worked at the Ritz, developed a number of variations of the strawberry and cream combination including Strawberries Romanov, which is strawberries marinated in curaçao served with Chantilly cream.

It was in this era too that the strawberry became associated with the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

Strawberries and cream were served at the very first tournament in 1877, as the thriving rail network meant that the fruit could be picked and transported to London on the same day to ensure the utmost freshness and this tradition continues to this day.

The season for British strawberries begins in June and lasts throughout the summer, but the strawberry is not the only tasty English summer fruit. Here are some of the main alternatives if you are looking for juicy and fresh English fruit this summer.

Gooseberries

The Cultivation of gooseberries was first recorded in England as far back as the 13th century, but they were not widely grown until the early 1500s, at a time when many fruits were being introduced and popularised through increased trade with the Continent. By 1831 the Horticultural Society’s London garden had established a collection of 360 different gooseberry cultivars.

During the Victorian era, there was a great rise in the prominence of the gooseberry, particularly in the north of the country. There was even a national publication for enthusiasts called ‘The Gooseberry Growers Register’, which in 1845 listed 171 separate gooseberry shows.

The booming gooseberry industry in the UK declined in the early 20th century due to the spread of American gooseberry mildew fungus, but resistance to the mildew was developed by crossing the European gooseberry with two smaller fruited American wild gooseberries Ribes hirtellum and Ribes divaricatum. The result has been a revival in fortunes for this delicious fruit. Their tartness makes them ideal as an accompaniment for a variety of dishes, including mackerel, but they are also handy for jam making as they have a high pectin content.

Elderflower

Elderflower is one of the quintessential tastes of an English summer but it is a fleeting taste as the elderflower season ends in early July. The Elder is native to the British Isles and the name itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld’. From earliest times Elders were believed to be sacred to an ancient goddess of vegetation, and people believed they were inhabited by a tree dryad which represented the soul of the tree, or was seen as an aspect of the goddess herself.

Elders were often planted by houses and farms in the belief that if the dryad was treated well, and honoured, it would protect the home and its occupants against evil spirits. Although there was a widespread taboo against cutting Elder down, and against the burning any of its wood, almost every part of the tree was considered medicinally effective in treating ailments from toothache to the plague!

Today it is the flowers that are used, in contemporary herbal medicine. They have a long standing reputation as the best treatment for all kinds of inflammatory and congestive conditions of the respiratory system. Cordials, wines and syrups have been made from Elderflowers and berries for centuries and are still widely used especially in country areas in Europe.

Rhubarb

Some consider rhubarb a fruit as it is widely used in desserts. Originally, rhubarb’s role was medicinal rather than culinary throughout the majority of its period of use. Indeed, widespread culinary uses began only two centuries ago whereas medicinal uses go back 5000 years or more.

The word rhubarb is of Latin origin. The ancient Romans imported rhubarb roots from lands were beyond the Vogue river, sometimes known as the Rha River.

Yet rhubarb’s medicinal uses began at least 5000 years ago, in China, where died roots were used as a laxative. In the west, rhubarb roots were an ingredient in numerous Greek and Roman medicines, as the dried roots also had useful properties..

There is no record of culinary rhubarb prior to the 1800s. Widespread consumption of rhubarb stalks began in Britain in the early 19th century with its popular adoption as an ingredient in desserts and wine making. The accidental discovery of forced rhubarb accelerated the growing popularity of rhubarb to the point of a mania in Victorian Britain.

Since then rhubarb’s popularity peaked just before World War II. At its most popular commercial quantities of rhubarb were grown outdoors as well as in greenhouses and dark cellars. Although culinary use dropped dramatically during WWII, it rebounded in the decades after 1945 and forced rhubarb in particular is still popular, with Yorkshire leading the way.

The rhubarb season lasts until about the end of June and those colourful pink stalks are for many people, the essence of summer. The fruit is versatile enough to use in pies, flans, crumbles or as an additive to yoghurt or porridge. It also freezes well so can be kept throughout the summer.

Raspberries

Fresh raspberries are a real late summer treat and never fail to please, served with just a dusting of icing sugar and a lick of cream. A fresh raspberry sauce, made by pushing raspberries through a sieve and stirring in some sifted icing sugar, also makes a wonderful dessert addition.

Raspberries are believed to be native to Asia and have been eaten since prehistoric times. They were cultivated by the Romans, but only gained widespread popularity after they were hybridized and improved by growers in England and France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The raspberry is actually a member of the rose family and is not true berry. There are also yellow, purple and orange versions of the raspberry, though these are rarely seen in the UK.

Due to their hollow core raspberries are fragile and so should be handled with care. They are also highly perishable and need to be eaten in a day or two after picking, although they do freeze well.

English raspberries generally come into season in May and are immediately recognizable: a plump, juicy, packed with flavour. They can fit well with a wide range of desserts and cakes, and you can add them to cereals and even a glass of gin and tonic!

Cherries

English cherries were once one of Britain’s most popular fruits but a combination of poor weather, high labour costs and old-fashioned picking methods led to a decline in the volumes of home grown cherries in the second half of the 20th century, along with the importation of cheaper cherries from Turkey, Spain and America. In the year 2000, the whole of the English cherry industry produced just 400 tonnes. But since then things have slowly started to improve.

More and more English growers are now seeing better yields by using dwarf root stock, grafted onto new tree varieties. These produce much smaller trees which can be grown in plastic tunnels, enabling the creation of a micro climate with temperatures similar to the Mediterranean.

These new smaller cherry trees can be picked by workers on foot rather than ladders, enabling English cherries to compete with foreign rivals for the first time in many decades.

The English cherry season begins in July and only lasts three months so you have to move quickly to catch them! Sweet cherries are perfect for a fresh snack, and can be stored in the fridge in a sealed bag for up to a week. Alternatively, the fruit can be added to savoury dishes like duck and pork or used as a tasty drink decoration.

Blackberries

The British blackberry season starts in June and the fruit is best picked as soon as it is ripe. Blackberries are widespread throughout England so you can pick them direct from the bush, and as with English raspberries, this fruit can really enhance a summer drink.

The season lasts until the beginning of autumn and blackberries are flexible enough to have multiple uses. In August they can be served simply with a little sugar and a lot of cream but later on, they are ideal for a range of deliciously comforting hot pies and puddings made by combining blackberries with the first apples of the season.

Blackberries have been grown across Asia, Europe and the Americas for tens of thousands of years. Archaeological records show that European inhabitants ate them as long ago as 8,000 BC. They have long been popular in England and in World War One, children in England were given time off school to collect blackberries for the production of juice that was sent to soldiers to help maintain health.

Today there are more than 2,000 varieties found throughout the cooler regions of the world. Like the raspberry, it is an aggregate fruit and relative of the rose. It is a highly adaptable and fast-growing shrub, found in hedgerows, woodland, meadows and wasteland. It is a good pioneer species and its prickly stems help protect other plants’ young shoots from being eaten.

Blackcurrants

The blackcurrant is to an extent a hidden gem of the English countryside. Blackcurrants have been growing in the countryside since the 17th century, records suggest, at which time they were revered for their many medicinal qualities. Over the years the fruit grew steadily in popularity and in 1826 it was first listed with the Royal Horticultural Society.

Yet, it wasn’t until around the 1930’s during World War II that English people really got a taste for blackcurrants when Ribena, a drink made from blackcurrants, was given to children for free as a vitamin C supplement. That was the start of the nation’s love for the great taste of blackcurrants that remains to this day.

The blackcurrant season only last a few weeks, and it’s very much a forgotten fruit that can often not be found in the supermarket. Blackcurrants are perfect for jams, crumbles and summer puddings and can also be stewed and used to accompany porridge.

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