One of the pleasures of being an émigré is that you can bring the best of British with you. What could be more English than strawberries and cream? It is like leather on willow.
Well, not quite.
Although the tiny woodland strawberries were known since Roman times, the first garden strawberries originated in France. In 1714, while on a spying mission for the Sun King, Louis XIV, in the Spanish ports of South America, naval military engineer Amédeé François Frézier (his surname may sound like the French for a strawberry plant, fraisier, but is a corruption of Fraser, from his Scottish antecedents) heard of the large white strawberries of Chile. They were big but not fragrant nor flavoursome.
He brought back several plants, giving one to Antoine de Jussieu at the Royal Gardens in Paris. It was sent to Brittany and by the 1740s, through cross-breeding with Virginian and European woodland berries, a centre of production of fabulous dark red berries grew around the town of Plougastel, near Brest.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, Plougastel produced a quarter of the strawberries grown in France.
The town even boasts a museum where you can discover all the history and buy strawberry-related souvenirs.
Throughout the south of France, especially through the Lot-et-Garonne and down into the Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence, the best strawberry is the Gariguette. It is an intense red, rather elongated berry.
Buy berries early in the day, carry them home as carefully as if you were carrying eggs and keep them cool. The flavour is fantastic.
If you are used to commercially grown British berries (mostly Elsanta, plumped with water), you will be surprised at the depth of flavour, the extraordinary combination of sweetness and acidity and the haunting fragrance. They may cost a few cents more but Gariguettes are worth it.
You may also find a newer cousin, the Ciflorette. After the Gariguettes are over – they start as early as March and continue through to June – try Mara des Bois. These were developed as recently as the 1990s to give more of the flavour of the woodland strawberry, they are rounder and pinker.
Although it is hard to beat strawberries and cream, there are so many ways of using this fruit (or more properly, faux-fruit – botanically speaking, the real “fruit” on a strawberry plant are the seeds that speckle the flesh).
Some people do not care for the “pippiness” of berries (not just strawberries but raspberries, blackberries and currants). You can still enjoy all the flavour by sieving the berries and making a fool with cream or custard or by adding sugar and lemon juice and churn-freezing to make a sorbet.
Gently warming strawberries intensifies their flavour.
Use strawberries stir-fried briefly in butter and vanilla sugar to fill crêpes to brighten an unseasonably cool day.
Dress strawberries with balsamic vinegar or dust with black pepper as a surprising accompaniment to a petit-suisse.
The aigre doux recipe above can be used as a salad on its own or with some crisp green lettuce. You can use it as a relish with grilled crottins of goat’s cheese or with a salmon steak.
The terrine studded with strawberries, looks impressive but is really simple to make.