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A berry old tradition: the history of English strawberries

Posted:
29 June 2017
Posted By:
Sam Bilton
Categories:
History Uncovered
Birds eye view of a strawberry tart on a plate

Summer wouldn’t be the same without a bowl of strawberries drizzled with cold cream. So quintessentially British is the treat that a whopping 140,000 portions are served up every year at Wimbledon. The tennis tradition links back to the innovative Victorians, with the history of the nation’s taste for strawberries dating even earlier. But how much do we know about the origins of the English strawberry and how long has it been connected with the most famous tennis tournament in the world?

This iconic combination has been enjoyed for centuries, from British kings like James I to everyday people of today. From as early as the 16th century, the humble strawberry has been enjoyed as part of the ‘banquet’.  A banquet during the 16th and 17th centuries was the last course of a meal where lots of sweet treats would be served such as comfits and marmalades (thick jelly-like confections rather than jams). They were an opportunity for the host to show off their wealth through the use of luxurious ingredients like sugar and spices, which were considered expensive at the time.

Close up of Alpine strawberry

An Alpine strawberry grown today in the Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle and Gardens

The strawberries eaten by the Tudors and Stuarts were the wild variety Alpine – a petite red berry which continues to grow in English hedgerows and woodlands. You can see these strawberries growing at Kenilworth Castle and Gardens today. This would have been the only strawberry available during the 16th century.

In 1625 Sir Francis Bacon describes how ‘strawberry-leaves dying, yield an excellent cordial smell’. This suggests that strawberries were admired as much for their scent as their taste. At Kenilworth we have used strawberries as edging around the flower beds which allows their scent to be more easily appreciated.

Raw strawberries, a forbidden fruit?

But strawberries haven’t always been desirable. For a time during the Tudor period, the English believed that raw fruit was dangerous. This continued up until the Age of Enlightenment, which began in the late 17th century.

Sugar was an ideal partner for fruit as it was considered to be promoting hot and dry humours therefore balancing out the cold and moist humours associated with raw fruit. In medieval times physicians believed the body was made up of four humours (hot, dry, cold and moist) and these needed to be in balance. Certain foods were attached to different humours so a balanced diet was necessary to ensure good health.

One of the ways to counter the potential ill effects of fruit was by cooking it with wine and spices in the form of a pottage, as instructed in the book Two 15th century Cookbooks:

Take strawberries and was them in time of year in good red wine; then strain through a cloth, and do them in a pot with good almond milk, allay it with amidon or with flour of rice, and make it chargeaunt (thick) and let it boil, and do therein raisins of corinth (currants), saffron, pepper, sugar great plenty, powder ginger, canell, galingale; point it with vinegar, and a little white grease (lard) put thereto; colour it with alkanet, and drop it about, plant it with the grains of pomegranate, and serve it forth.

Birds eye view of strawberry pottage pie

An example of a strawberry pottage

The development of the modern strawberry

Virginia strawberries were brought to England from America during the 16th century. These were sweeter than our own wild variety but were still small (the Little Scarlett berry which is still grown today is related to the original Virginia strawberry). It was only when this strawberry was cross bred with the larger Chilean strawberry (brought back to France by Amédée François Frézier during the 18th century) that the larger strawberry that we know today was born.

By the early 19th century even larger and juicier fruits were being produced and England gained a reputation for its strawberries, leading large fruits to be dubbed les fraises Anglaises. This simply translates to ‘English strawberries’. 

During the Victorian era, strawberries were mostly found in the Kitchen Garden where they were grown to be eaten by the family. A diary entry from William Creswell, a gardener at Audley End House and Gardens in the 1870s, describes how he ‘gathered strawberries which were sent to London in the evening with flowers’.

The Victorians were avid horticulturists and continued to breed new varieties of strawberry such as the Royal Sovereign in 1892 which was unrivaled in flavour and appearance.  While most of the Victorian strawberry cultivars have been lost, this year Audley End is growing four varieties including Royal Sovereign.

Although strawberries were still served at the end of a meal, they were more likely to be enjoyed fresh rather than cooked, or perhaps preserved in the form of a jam. We also see fresh strawberries and cream starting to appear on menus. French chef Auguste Escoffier, from the Ritz, provides a number of variations of the strawberry and cream combination in Le Guide Culinair in 1901. One such dish is Strawberries Romanov, which is strawberries marinated in curaçao served with Chantilly cream.

It was also around this time that strawberries first made their way to the tennis.

A sporting chance

Strawberries and cream were served at the very first Wimbledon tournament in 1877. The development of the railways during the 19th century meant the fruit could be picked and transported to London on the same day to ensure the utmost freshness. This tradition continues in the 21st century today. At Wimbledon, strawberries are picked at 4.00 am on the day of serving, collected from the packing plant at 9.00am and are delivered to the Club at 11.00 am for inspection and hulling.

Why not have a go at making your own strawberries and cream with this historic dish?

Strawberries at Wimbledon ©AELTC

Strawberries at Wimbledon ©AELTC

Recipe: Strawberry Tart with Snow Cream

In medieval times, the tart (case) was not meant to be eaten. Instead it was used as a vessel to transport the kitchen contents to the dining room, called a ‘coffyn’. By the late 16th century, pastry became an integral part of the dish rather than the dense pastry coffyns.

This recipe has been adapted from Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (c. 1660). Robert May was a cook to the aristocracy of royalist England during the 17th century. Originally the tart and cream were designed to be served as separate dishes but they work really well together in a sweet pastry case.

Ingredients for 4 people

For the pastry

150g plain flour
75g cold, unsalted butter, diced into small cubes
20g caster sugar
1 egg yolk
A little water to bind
20g melted butter

For the filling

500g fresh strawberries, washed and hulled
100ml red wine
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
⅛ tsp ground ginger
40g caster sugar
1 egg white
300ml double cream
2-3 tsp rosewater
2 tbsp icing sugar, sieved
Rosemary or mint sprigs to garnish

Method

To make the pastry: Sift the flour into a bowl. Add the butter then rub into the flour with your finger tips. Stir in 20g caster sugar then mix in the egg yolk and enough water to bring the pastry together. Alternatively, place the flour, butter and sugar in a food processor then blitz until combined before adding the egg yolk and a little water to bind the pastry together. Cover with cling film and allow to rest in the fridge for 1 hour.

To make the strawberry and red wine sauce: Take 100g of the strawberries. Place in a food processor with the red wine. Blitz until the fruit is puréed then pass through a sieve into a small saucepan to remove the pips. Add the spices and 40g caster sugar. Bring the sauce to the boil then simmer until reduced by half. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool to room temperature.

To make the tart cases: Preheat the oven to 190℃. Divide the pastry into 4 rounds. Roll each piece out so that it is large enough to line a 10-11cm individual tart tin leaving a little extra overhanging the top of the tin. Prick the bases of the tart cases with a fork. Put a small square of scrunched up baking parchment or greaseproof paper into the case and fill with ceramic baking beans. Place the tart tins on a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the paper and beans and brush with melted butter. Return the cases to the oven for a further 5-7 minutes. It’s crucial the pastry is thoroughly cooked at this stage as the tarts will not be cooked again. Once the tarts are cooked trim off the overhanging pastry using a sharp knife and allow the cases to cool before filling them.

To make the snow cream: Whisk the egg white until it forms stiff peaks. Place the cream, 2 tsp of rosewater and icing sugar in a bowl. Whip together until thick but floppy. Taste and add more rosewater if you like. Fold in the whisked egg white.

To assemble the tarts: Quarter the remaining strawberries and toss in the cooled strawberry and red wine sauce. Place some cream into the tart cases then spoon some of the strawberries over the top. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary or fresh mint.

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