Do strawberries taste as good as they used to?
Eating a warm strawberry straight from the patch is arguably the most pleasurable aspect of a British summer. It’s not just nostalgia that makes us wonder if they just don’t taste like they used to. Are modern varieties a patch on what was grown in the past? Gardener Mark Diacono says: “New varieties are often developments and/or crosses of older varieties, bred for greater reliability and resistance to disease. Flavour is often lost in that process.”
But as a heritage crop, strawberries are a bit of an outlier – it’s not one that always supports the ‘older is better’ hypothesis. It’s taken a lot of time and effort to cultivate a tasty berry – like the fruit of Tantalus, the perfect strawberry always seems just out of reach.
But first, a little history lesson. For thousands of years, Europeans had been gobbling up one type of strawberry: the wild Fragaria vesca, tiny, but highly-flavoured with hints of clove and grape. The demand for cultivation was clear: strawberries had been the prize of French and English kings. (Henry VIII himself having paid as much for 250g of the fruit as was paid for a portrait of Jane Seymour by Holbein.)
Wild strawberry drawing, Conrad Gessner 1555-65 (Photo by Roland zh, via Wikimedia Commons)
Upon the discovery of the Americas came the arrival in Europe of two new types of wild strawberry - the Fragaria virginiana from North America and the Fragaria chileonsis from South America. Both were larger, but a mixed bag in terms of flavour.
How fortunate that in the early 1780s, a fluke cross-breed of the two American varieties was created from interplanting in the French botanical gardens. These two plants become mother and father to nearly all of our modern cultivars - the Fragaria x ananassa, or ‘pineapple’ strawberry.
Not to say that this was the end of all other strawberries. Varieties of the F. virginiana, commonly called Scarlet, were still very popular in England and America. This juicy, acidic berry is well-suited to making jam, and is indeed still grown in the UK exclusively in Tiptree, Essex for Wilkin and Son’s Little Scarlet jam – notably the favourite jam of international man of mystery, James Bond.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London - Two strawberry plants (Fragaria cultivars): fruit and flowers. Coloured aquatint, c. 1839. after: Charles Macintosh
But the pineapple strawberry intrigued a shy horticulturist from Herefordshire called Thomas Andrew Knight. Encouraged by Sir Joseph Banks and the nascent Royal Horticultural Society, he began systematic work on a larger, sweeter cultivar of F. x ananassa, creating the Downton - a big, brightly coloured fruit that was slightly disappointing in taste. But his real legacy is his scientific approach to strawberry cultivation and his inspiration of other gardeners like Michael Keens of Isleworth. In 1821, the Keen’s Seedling quickly became the favourite strawberry - large, juicy, sweet and prolific.
Other gardeners continued his approach, with one of the most successful being Thomas Laxton, cohort of Charles Darwin, and his production of the Royal Sovereign in 1892 - combining European flavour with and American hardiness. This is where a British cultivated strawberry becomes exceptionally delicious; it was the leading strawberry for about fifty years and is still grown today by strawberry aficionados.
After showing signs of disease, the Royal Sovereign was superseded commercially in the 1930’s by D. Boyes’ Cambridge Favourite - the Elsanta of its day - making up 70% of the British commercial market by the 1960s. But the better flavoured strawberries of the 20th century came first from developments in Scotland. Having bolstered the health of Royal Sovereign, Robert Reid also produced the scrumptious Talisman and Red Gauntlet varieties. These are both still available to grow and taste great.
So is it worth growing these older varieties, knowing that the yield might be lower and a bit more susceptible to disease? Mark Diacono again: “It is hard to generalise as there are some excellent new varieties, but older varieties typically have a more complex flavour. It’s not just about sweetness in older varieties - that makes many of them more interesting and flavoursome to eat. Royal Sovereign was hugely popular in the first half of the last century and still held in great affection by those that have grown it. But it is not a clean distinction - some of the newer varieties such as Mara des Bois (developed 20 years ago) and Marshmello are very good.”
Despite its American ancestors and awhirlwind French romance, the strawberry’s heritage seems quintessentially British. We’ve probably lots of new wonderful varieties to look forward to, but much enjoyment to be had from the past.
Are there any strawberry varieties you've grown and enjoyed? Which is the best flavour?