BBC Food blog

« Previous | Main | Next »

Do strawberries taste as good as they used to?

Post categories:

Emily Angle Emily Angle | 15:51 UK time, Wednesday, 2 May 2012

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.)

Fragaria vesca drawing

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.

Downton and Keen's Seedlings strawberry drawing

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?

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Let us not forget the utterly tasteless"Cambridge" varieties some of which could be bought as "Royal Sovereigns"! Many modern varieties are much better.

  • Comment number 2.

    Cambridge Favourite tasteless? I grow seven or eight varieties of strawberries outside and I wouldn’t say any of them are tasteless. Cambridge may be the least interesting but they are reliable and 10 times better than those of the same name that are grown for the market, or indeed any I have tasted from the supermarket. Its not just the variety you grow - how its grown has a huge effect on the resulting flavour too. Lots of water and fertiliser make for a larger crop but dilutes the flavour.

  • Comment number 3.

    Education in Chemistry discusses the science behind the flavour and smell of strawberries in our May issue, particularly the differences between wild and cultivated strawberries.
    Find out why there's a difference here: http://www.rsc.org/Education/EiC/issues/2012May/whats-in-your-strawberries.asp

  • Comment number 4.

    UK grown strawberries taste far better than they used to, it is all a rosy dream harping back to our perception of years ago. Grow a few of the old varieties to see what I mean!

  • Comment number 5.

    Hello, EiC: That's a fascinating article. I wanted to use some of the science of flavour in this piece, but it was already getting quite geeky (hopefully in a good way). Thanks for the link!

    There seems to be a bit of an old/new split forming. Anyone else have a view?

    e

  • Comment number 6.

    Cambrige Favourites; tasteless? There must be something wrong with your strawberry plants. I have been growing CB's in large pots for over 10 years, together with a Spanish variety. Each year I get a bumper crop of fruit of circa' 200 strawberries. I rotate the plants every 2-3 years and always bring-on the runners from the older plants to replenish plant stock. Give the plants plenty of organic feed and now have some delicious anglo-spanish homemade hybrids. The trick with strawberries is to look after them, don't over water but do keep lightly moist, feed well and it's guaranteed you'll have the tastiest homegrowns. Plus, I like to give strawberry plants as presents. Family and friends love to receive these a far more interesting than a DVD; roll-on the Summer!!

  • Comment number 7.

    Same as tomatoes.When I was a kid,and I m only 50 now,you could bite into one and suck the inside out,loved doing that.Now,you cant even bite into supermarket tomatoes!

  • Comment number 8.

    Mara des bois has been my favourite since a meal at the River Cafe. I bought the plants in fFrance originally and have grown them for several years in my Chiswick garden. I also have the tiny wild stawberries in my garden but they are just to pick and eat as I wander round first thing in the morning.

  • Comment number 9.

    I don't think much of the strawberries available - those flown in from ar flung places are barely ripe and thos from the UK in season tend to be more water than sweet flavoured flesh.

  • Comment number 10.

    Wild strawberries grow like weeds in my garden - fiddly little things.

  • Comment number 11.

    Strawberries have never been that great. In fact, I'd say, they're the most overrated food of all time. They've always been a bit incipid and lacked flavour. Even the old varieties that used to grow in my garden 25 years ago.

    Raspberries and boysenberries all the way!!!

  • Comment number 12.

    Here Here Mr B Buds - loganberries too eh - all these ar much better suited to the British climate and don't get devastated by slugs

  • Comment number 13.

    Strawberries need a period of cold in the year to develop flavour and some sun and wamrth to ripen. So, in my opinion, Scottish strawberries are the best for flavour although sometimes the crop in our rather northerly garden is quite small unless covered in the spring. Wild strawberries grow well around here if you know where to look and supplement the domestic varieties a little. Strawberries from hot countries like southern europe always seem to be a dissappointment, better to go without.

  • Comment number 14.

    I have just returned from Spain where I bought 1kg of local strawberries (grown in Murcia) for €1 (about 80p). The cost of the equivalent in the UK at the moment must be (I actually dread to think - perhaps £6-8!).

    Suprisingly, most of the fruit and veg that ends up in our supermarkets comes from the Murcia region, yet these strawberries were absolutely delicious.

    I find they go soft and mouldy very quickly in the UK these days - well within a day or two at the most. In the deliciously hot sunshine of a open-air Spainish market, they were as hardy to the touch as any heavily refrigerated huge, bland tasteless strawberries we alas seem to end up with in England.

    My top tip is that the smallest strawberries are always the tastiest, so avoid the large ones like the plague! The bigger the more watery which dilutes the sweetness and the taste.

    And of course, it has to be said:- the best strawberries are grown in manure!

 

More from this blog...

BBC iD

Sign in

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.