Nothing speaks of an English summer more than strawberries and cream. It’s an iconic dish that is closely associated with garden parties, stately homes and the Wimbledon Tennis Championships. It’s one of the nostalgic images of “old” England and in fact the dish is celebrating its 510th anniversary round about now.
The strawberry has, of course, been around for a lot longer than 500 years. The writings of the Ancient Greeks and Romans refer to the wild strawberry fruit and its medicinal properties but evidence from archaeological excavations suggests that our Stone Age ancestors were already eating wild strawberries. In about the 14th century these wild plants were taken from woodlands and introduced into gardens so that they could be grown for household fruit. Charles V, King of France in 1364, must have had a particular penchant for them as 1200 strawberry plants were grown in his royal gardens. From the early 15th century the plant also pops up in illuminated manuscripts and western art, demonstrating that it was familiar – and beautiful – to our ancestors.
The wild strawberry is tiny in relation to its commercially grown cousin. You can find it growing in the wild in England in woods, on chalk and limestone downlands and in railway cuttings (which is where I saw some most recently and where a lot of other beautiful wild plants and flowers also grow.) There are two different sorts of wild strawberry – wood strawberries which bear the beautiful French name fraisier des bois, and the alpine strawberry. In the 19th century the French seed producer Vilmorin described the wood strawberry as having a very distinct perfume and flavour. The alpine variety are larger and produce fruit for longer.
Meanwhile in the Americas a different type of strawberry was flourishing. The Mapuche and Huillche Indians of Chile cultivated a particular strawberry which, when it was introduced to Europe in the 18th century, bore no fruit. However when it was planted amongst other strains of strawberry it bore lots of large fruits. European strawberry growers thus discovered that the plants had the ability to bear male-only and female-only flowers. A treatise on the Sexual Reproduction of Strawberries was produced in 1766!
Woodland strawberry fruit is strongly flavoured, and is still collected and grown for domestic use and on a small scale commercially for gourmet foods and as an ingredient for commercial jam, sauces, liqueurs, cosmetics and alternative medicine.
So what about the cream? Well, allegedly, it was Cardinal Wolsey who came up with the idea of matching up strawberries and cream one day in 1509 during a banquet at Hampton Court for Henry VIII’s court. This set the seal of its popularity. One Tudor traveller however sounds a word of warning about over-eating:
The picture gives a clue as to what might happen! The problem, as viewed by Tudor physicians, was all to do with the four “humours,” the fluids within the body that affected everything from your health to your mood, looks and behaviour. Raw fruits were considered dangerous as they possessed cold and moist humours. This required them to be balanced out by hot and dry humours. Fortunately these could be found in sugar!
Another way 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.”
So the poor old strawberry had a bit of a mixed reputation. Before suspicions about its dangerous qualities crept in, it appeared in manuscripts representing the medieval belief that the strawberry is a cure for depressive illnesses; its presence suggests the healing powers of Christ that lead us to eternal salvation. It stood "for noble thought and modesty, for although it is conspicuous by its color and fragrance, it nevertheless bows humbly to the earth. Its three-partitioned leaf was a reminder of the Holy Trinity. The fruits, pointing downward, were the drops of Blood of Christ, and the five petals of its white flower, his five wounds." So it was a holy plant in the Christian religion. St. Francis de Sales, who considered that virtue was represented in nature, spoke of the righteous and incorruptible nature of the strawberry, untouched by any poison around it: As a symbol of perfection and righteousness, medieval stone masons carved strawberry designs on altars and around the tops of pillars in churches and cathedrals.
It's worth noting that Shakespeare also threw shade on the strawberry. In Richard III he has the king calling for strawberries to eat whilst plotting the murder of the Princes in the Tower!
So the Victorians picked up on the popularity of strawberries – with cream – when they launched the first Wimbledon tennis championship in 1877 and from there they have gone on to colonise recipes across the world and across all seasons. William Morris helped with one of his most popular textile designs, The Strawberry Thief, inspired by the thrushes stealing fruit at his manor house at Kelmscott in Oxfordshire. The strawberry motif is now a very popular decoration.
As for the recipes, well, you can have strawberries with almost anything these days – pepper, for example, or in strawberry gin, or with meringues in Eton Mess, famously said to have been created when a Labrador sat on a strawberry meringue cake at a picnic!
What is the taste of summer for you? Is it strawberries or something completely different? Have you tried strawberries and pepper and do you have a favourite strawberry recipe?