This succulent, fragrant fruit is as beautiful as it is flavourful. Traditionally, part of the strawberry's appeal is that its short, six-week season, from early June until mid-August, coincides with the brief, long-awaited British summer. These days, however, the British strawberry season extends from mid-April until mid-December, thanks to the increased use of plastic polytunnels, which provide the berries with a warmer, more protected environment - and a much longer growing season. Just one variety of strawberry, Elsanta, accounts for 80 per cent of the British fruit sold in UK supermarkets, although many other varieties are available from farmers' markets and pick-your-own farms and are worth seeking out. Strawberries have long been a key ingredient in classic British summer foods such as Eton Mess, summer pudding, or strawberries and cream.
Look for unblemished strawberries with bright-green hulls. Try to buy only British strawberries where possible: you'll be rewarded with a better-tasting product, because Britain has a climate that's ideally suited to growing soft fruits. If you buy freshly picked fruit from local farms or visit a pick-your-own farm, you'll be getting produce that's approaching the peak of ripeness in contrast to imported fruit, which is likely to have been picked early. Locally-picked berries also have less impact on the environment. However, read the labels on strawberries carefully: local fruit isn't always marked as clearly as it could be. Be prepared to pay more for local strawberries too: they're often more expensive than fruit grown in the Mediterranean or even South America.
Although the Elsanta variety is justifiably popular, environmentalists point out that a 'strawberry monoculture' is not good for biodiversity. Pick-your-own farms are more likely to offer less-familiar varieties such as Florence, Alice, Rosie, Cambridge Late Pine and Rhapsody, each with its own flavours, aromas and growing seasons.
Freezing strawberries can prove disappointing as, once thawed, they become flabby. To get around this problem, freeze whole strawberries in thick raspberry purée or pulp them and freeze to use in other recipes.
Strawberries are the quintessential summer treat. For better flavour, let strawberries come to room temperature before eating them: if possible, put them out to warm in the sun for a couple of hours to bring out their full taste and aroma. As with any other delicate berries, wash and handle them gently and as little as possible to avoid bruising them. Always wash strawberries before hulling them.
Dip whole strawberries into melted dark chocolate and set aside until firm, then serve as a tasty canapé at champagne receptions; the berries will complement a rosé bubbly. Garnish summer salads with slices of strawberries, stir the berries into meringues and whipped cream to make Eton mess, or sandwich them between sponge cakes or pastries such as millefeuille. Alternatively, sprinkle a few drops of balsamic vinegar or a dusting of freshly ground black pepper sparingly over strawberries to enhance their flavour. If you end up with a glut when the season draws to a close, add them to homemade ice cream or sorbet, or make homemade vinegar and liqueur. If you make strawberry jam, remember that the berries are low in pectin, so add some lemon juice or bottled pectin to help the jam set.
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