This is that taste of summer: strawberries on cereal, strawberries and cream, strawberry tarts, strawberries as candy.
Friday mornings the words from the musical Oliver ring in my head as I make the rounds of the Brantome market - “Ripe Strawberries Ripe, Ripe Strawberries Ripe. Who will buy……”
This time of year strawberries hold pride of place on market days. These jewels are not tumbled in with other produce. They are presented (Displayed!) apart, emphasizing their color, shape, and especially to magnify their evocative smell. Evocative of warmth, summer, grandma’s desserts.
With the best strawberries in all of France cultivated only 30 minutes away we are guaranteed the cream of the crop. Local vendors are bringing in flats direct from farms just south of Perigueux. The strawberries in this region have earned the label ‘PGI’ (Protected Geographical Identification). There are 200 farms growing 75,000 tons of this delightful treasure. The berry production from this tiny region represents a quarter of the entire French crop.
Berries for market mornings have been picked within the last 12 hours - some even that morning. Ever so fragile they are never allowed in the sun once they are picked - these are not your high acid, long traveling, stuck on a rack grocery store strawberries - heck you’re smart if you eat them before you get back to the car.
There are four main berries for sale here -
The tiny irregular mara de bois so delicate they will barely survive the morning. But oh the strength of the flavor and perfume of this ruby gem. Have you ever eaten a wild strawberry? This is close as you will get if not.
The Charlotte that taste just as good as the mara de bois and is twice as big - also a bit more “sturdy”.
The Cléry are brilliant carmine, well shaped, fairly firm, and good for eating fresh or baking.
Gariguette are bright shinny red, elongated in shape, sugary and acidic
The name strawberry probably comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘streawberige’ meaning ‘runners.’ Although another possible origin of the name comes from the beds of straw on which berries are cultivated to prevent fruits coming into contact with the soil (a host to various fungal diseases.)
The strawberry is related to the rose family and one of the only fruits to have its seeds on the outside. It was originally used as medicine and has long been used to cleanse and purify the digestive system and to act as a mild tonic for the liver.
The French began taking the strawberry from the forest into their gardens in the 14th century. Charles V, king from 1364 to 1380, had 1,200 strawberry plants in his royal garden. In the early 15th century western European monks were using the wild strawberry in their illuminated manuscripts. The entire strawberry plant was used to treat depressive illnesses. They are an excellent source of vitamin C and if your conscience is looking for a little reprieve from calories after the Dordogne’s culinary temptations, you’ll be pleased to know that a 100g portion contains only 27 calories.
The first garden strawberry was grown in Brittany, France, during the late 18th century. Prior to this wild woodland strawberries were the source of the fruit. A French excursion to Chile in 1712 brought back a strawberry plant with female flowers that eventually resulted in the common strawberry that we have today. When first planted in Europe, the plants grew vigorously but produced no fruit. Around the mid 18th century, French gardeners in Brest and Cherbourg discovered that when the varieties F. moschata and F. virginiana were planted in between rows of F. chiloensis, the Chilean strawberry would bear abundant and unusually large fruits.
So - that’s more than you ever wanted to know about our strawberries here in the Perigord Vert, La Dordogne, France. Enjoy!