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The Strawberry Season

James Beard

June 18, 2018

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Photo: Hilary Deutsch

In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto to the pleasures of strawberries, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

Beard on Food: The Strawberry Season

The strawberry, which grows all over the world, is not really a true fruit in the strict botanical sense, but a member of the rose family, the genus Fragaria. The cultivated strawberries we see in our markets have a rather fascinating history. They are descendants of an inspired crossbreeding of the Virginia strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), the native wild strawberry of the eastern seaboard which was introduced into Europe around 1610, even before the Pilgrim fathers settled in New England, and the Chilean strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis), which made the voyage a century later. From their marriage came hybrid strains which were brought back here in the mid-19th century, and the number of varieties that have been developed since then is quite fantastic—especially in California, where strawberries seem to thrive better than anywhere else. Although I will probably be criticized for saying this, I find that the strawberries grown in California, Oregon, and Washington State are by far the greatest in this country. Those from Florida do not have the acid quality or the flavor of the others.

We are lucky in never having a shortage of these incomparable berries, for strawberries in their various sizes and shapes have become a year-round crop, with May and June as the peak months. Sometimes we get the very round smallish berries, deliciously sweet, at other times enormous oval berries, some of which are long and pointed. The choicest of these huge berries come with their long stems intact and can be eaten by the stem with powdered sugar and heavy or sour cream, or yogurt, whichever you prefer. Then we have the Marshall strawberry, a great berry for preserves, with a remarkable perfume and taste, which grows best in Oregon and parts of Washington.

There are two distinct types of strawberry. One is the cultivated, the other the tiny wild perpetual or alpine strawberry, which the French call fraises des bois or fraises des quatres saisons. Euopeans favor these little wild berries, which they consider to have a flavor and fragrance superior to the cultivated kind, known in France as les gros fraises. Actually, the larger strawberries are extremely good, too, and you will find them in France, in Germany, and in England, where they may be served for tea with clotted cream, one of the most glorious combinations known to man. 

The French have come up with some very unusual ways of serving strawberries. I remember some years ago stopping for dinner with three friends at an inn not far from the famous old walled city of Carcassonne, in southern France. We were introduced to a dish called strawberries Carcassonne, which you may think sounds pretty strange and shocking, but I can assure you tastes magnificent if properly prepared. Gorgeous, big strawberries in their prime of ripeness were arranged in a deep bowl and sprinkled with just the right amount of sugar (I think one must always taste strawberries before sugaring them, because they take anywhere from no sugar at all to a pretty lavish amount.) Then the berries were given a sprinkling of very coarsely ground black pepper—about 12 to 15 grinds of the mill, and if that startles you, well it may! About 1/2 cup of Armagnac, the brandy of the region (for which you could substitute Cognac), was poured over the berries, with just a touch of lemon juice. The bowl was gently shaken so that the berries turned over and over and the flavors blended. The trick is not to bruise or break the berries, but just to let them become imbued with the amalgam of flavors. Try this remarkably different approach to ripe strawberries, serve them in individual dishes with a crisp cookie, and I guarantee you’ll agree that the pepper does something devastatingly good to them.

In Venice I encountered peppered strawberries again, this time the wild fraises des bois. Instead of the usual liqueur, the berries were laved in sugar, pepper, and a little white wine vinegar—a very delicate homemade vinegar with no sharp acidity—all of which blended together to give the tiny berries a most intriguing sweet-sour-spicy taste.

One of the most famous of all strawberry dishes is strawberries Romanoff, which must have come from Russia in the old days. Everyone seems to have a different recipe for it, and I have one of my own which I’m going to share with you. For four servings of strawberries Romanoff, hull 1 quart fine ripe strawberries, taste them, and sprinkle with sugar to your liking. Then add the grated rind of 1 orange, approximately 2/3 cup orange juice, and 1/2 cup port wine. Let the berries stand for several hours in the refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap.

Just before serving, remove the berries and place in a serving dish with some of the juice. If they have thrown a good deal of juice, drain some off and put it in a separate bowl. Whip 1 1/2 cups heavy cream, flavor with sugar and vanilla to taste and a few drops of port. Toss the berries with this cream, and serve at once with slices of delicate pound cake or tiny sugar cookies and the extra juice, to be spooned over each serving.

This is a superbly good dessert that does justice to the long and joyous strawberry season.

Read more essays from Beard on Food.