When it comes to Foods the Americas Gave the World (as the Smithsonian once described them), the Americas in question are mostly South and Central, original homes of tomatoes, potatoes, corn , chiles, chocolate and vanilla, just for starters. Once you head North, there aint much shakin’ except wild rice and maple syrup.
But there are the world’s best strawberries, tiny wild strawberries, Fragaria virginiana, the ones that Roger Williams was talking about when he said, in 1643 “…this berry is the wonder of all fruits growing naturally in these parts. It is of itself excellent so that one of the chiefest doctors of England was wont to say, that God could have made, but never did make a better berry. …”
Still true – and one of the wonderful things about them is their subtle variation: color, shape and sweetness all depending on the soil, the shade, the weather of the season. Always delicious but never predictable, the best are so intensely fragrant it takes just a handful to lift a whole quart of garden berries into the sublime.
A mercy, that, because picking wild strawberries is – let us not say a pain – but certainly not a task for the time pressed. The biggest one I’ve ever found was about the size of a nickel, though plumper, and you do have to know a good spot; thickly carpeted with plants – each one bears just a few fruits – and undercarpeted with grass, leaves or some other barrier to sand and dirt. (washing any strawberry is bad, washing the wild ones is criminal – and usually ineffective. )
It would be easier if you could move some into the garden, but for some reason you can’t. Or rather, you can move the plants; but they will remain just as shy bearing and the fruit won’t taste the same.
Enter fraises de bois, wood strawberries, F. vesca, often called wild strawberries by the wishful thinkers who write menus. Slightly larger than the wild ones and very easy to grow in gardens, they are dependably delicious — if you believe the catalogs.
Over the years, I’ve grown several varieties, including Alexandra and Baron Solemacher, each of which is often touted as tastiest. Every one of them, to a strawberry, tasted exactly like fake grape flavoring – the kind in cheap candy and gum. ( should say they taste the way this flavor smells on the breaths of others. I must have consumed some when a child but that was quite a while ago).
I am not alone in this opinion. A brief supporting quote – from Eleanor Pereny’s garden classic, Green Thoughts, is on the May 4th podcast from Virtual Hudson Valley.
Perenyi, who attributes the whole fraise de bois phenom to savvy marketing, starts out by quoting Alice B. Toklas, another authority to be reckoned with: ” The small strawberries, called by the French wood strawberries, are not wild but cultivated. It took me an hour to gather a small basket for Gertrude Stein’s breakfast, and later when there was a plantation of them in the upper garden our young guests were told that if they cared to eat them, they should do the picking themselves.”
I wouldn’t add these words (from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook) if it weren’t for the next paragraph, forgotten until I went back to find the strawberries:
” The first gathering in the garden in May of Salads, radishes and herbs made me feel like a mother about her baby – how could anything so beautiful be mine. And this emotion of wonder filled me for each vegetable as it was gathered every year. There is nothing that is comparable to it, as satisfactory or as thrilling, as gathering the vegetables one has grown.”
(Green Thoughts and Ms. Toklas’ Cookbook have languished out of print from time to time but both are now readily available as inexpensive paperbacks..)