There are few fruits that I look forward to eating more than a truly fine strawberry in the summer. I can honestly say that I remember the first time when after years of eating strawberries that were enormous, watery, and only vaguely strawberry-tasting, I tasted a concentrated, sweet, and aromatic strawberry. It was one of those love-at-first-sight/punched-in-the-face stunning moments. I hadn’t even known what I was missing all those years. It was a fraise du bois from Middleton Gardens, the size of the my thumbnail, deep red, luxurious-tasting and nothing short of a revelation.
Because of its delicate qualities—easy spoilage, vulnaribility to pests and diseases, delicate skin, etc.—the strawberry was never considered a staple in the human diet, and therefore its history is particularly difficult to trace, and its exact origins are still considered unknown. The first instances of strawberries recorded are in Greek and Roman texts, including the Ovid where strawberries were noted only for medicinal and aesthetic purposes and as a foraged specialty.
It wasn’t until the 14th century that the strawberry became more popularly cultivated, although at this time, it was used mostly in an ornamental capacity in French royal gardens, gradually spreading in recognition to England as well. It was there in England during the late 15th century that the name “strawberry” developed from its predecessors “Streowberige, Strea Berige, Streowberge, Streaw Berian Wisan, Streberi Lef,” and “StrebereWyse.” The two leading hypothesis as to why it garnered this name are that the plant has tendency to sprawl or become strewn about, or that the fruits of the plant were sold in beds of hay, a practice that still occurs in Ireland.
It was also during this period that the three European species of strawberry were classified– Fragaria-F. vesca, F. moschata, and F. viridis, the former of which is one of the two garden species cultivated for fruit today. The first mention of strawberries in the United States is the famous Virginia strawberry, the second most popular fruit species, Fragaria Virginiana, developed in the Americas for its large fruit and productivity. It gained immediate popularity in Europe after its introduction in the early 18th century.
Currently, California and Florida are the United States’ greatest producers of strawberries. In its 30,000 acres of strawberry fields, California grows primarily these varietals of strawberry: Chandler, Seascape, Palomar, Albion, Aroma, Camarosa, Camino Real, Diamonte, and Ventana. Of these nine varieties, the latter six were developed by the University of California. Here in the San Joaquin area, the farms produce almost exclusively Chandlers, and the next closest growing area, California’s most productive region, Watsonville/Salinas, is dominated by the Albion.
No matter the variety, the strawberry is packed with nutrients. It is a good source of vitamin C, fiber, antioxidants, and folate. Strawberries can also be dangerous. Consumers should be advised of the potential health hazards of eating non-organic strawberries since they have been ranked as 2010’s third highest of the USDA’s annual “Dirty Dozen” foods—the foods that contain the highest residual pesticide.
Fortunately, there is an abundance of delicious organic strawberries within our reach. Some of my favorites are from Terra Firma Farm (Winters), Lucero Organic Farm (Lodi), Middleton Gardens (Healdsburg), Dirty Girl Farm (Santa Cruz), and Catalan Family Farm (Hollister). Enjoy!