Strawberries with cream, strawberry ice, if there is one fruit that is clearly associated with Summer, and tennis on Wimbledon, then it must be the strawberry.
Its popularity nearly became its downfall. I remember a lunch in the south of the Netherlands, during a corporate function, where strawberries were served in winter! I also clearly remember, and avoid, those appealingly red strawberries that are tasteless and tasteless on the inside because of their industrial production in hothouses.
There is nothing against a greenhouse strawberry, when grown with care, but the best strawberries come from a ground or forrest near your place. Here in the north of France, in the Yvelines, I can buy local strawberries. But more to the south, you can make a selection from various varieties of strawberries.
The smallest, most delicate and also expensive, are the ‘mara des bois’ woodland strawberries. At the outdoor market you sometimes see strawberries against discount prices. If you plan to use them straight away, go ahead, but I once kept them overnight and could throw them away because of fungus.
The woodland strawberry, Fragaria vesca, apparently was first cultivated in Persia before it came to Europe in the 16th century.
Most current strawberries are a cultivar cross of Fragaria and annanassa, which go back to a cross made in Brittany in the 1750s between the Fragaria virginiana from the U.S. and the Fragaria chilensis brought from Chile by Amédée-François Frézier in 1714.
The French name for strawberry, fraise, stems from the latin Fragaria, and so did the family name of the French military officer, explorer and botanical expert who brought five strawberry plants from Chile.
The English name is a bit of a misnomer both for the berry part and the straw bit. It is not a botanical berry and the straw may derive from the beard of the fruit or for the fruit being ‘strewn’ around a field.
Brittany is still a big strawberry production centre, both in glasshouses and on the ground. In the Celtic language, Brittany is Breizh’ and a clever marketing person is selling a brand of Britanny strawberries as Freizh’ from Plougastel. This is part of the Saveol cooperative of 150 fruit and tomato growers there.
It is a tradition in France to make jams from fruits when they are in season, especially when it is from the family garden as there were no other ways of conservation in the times before refrigerators and freezers.
The people used large copper basins and put the jams and other preserves in sterilised glass jars. You can still buy these big ‘bassines à confiture’ and a special ‘étonnoir’ to put the jam in the jars, as well as a sugar thermometer. That could be great if you plan to start a cottage industry but for just a jar or two there is no need.
After all, it is nice to make you own jam but there is plenty at the supermarket.
Depending on the fruit used, and on whether you want to keep the fruit whole or not, you can either first make the sugar liquor and add the fruit at a later stage, or lump them together from the start, as I do here.
- 500 grammes of fresh strawberries
- About 500 grammes of sugar (powder, granulated or special fruit sugar).
- Half a lemon
- One sachet of vanilla sugar
- Optional; a theespoon of agar agar
- Clean and wash the strawberries, cut them in halves, drain them and put them in a bowl.
- Weigh the bowl. Put the fruit in a heavy but not too large pan.
- Add the same weight in sugar as the fruit. Add the vanilla sugar.
- Squeeze half a lemon and add the juice to the pan. (The lemon juice helps the stetting of the jam, makes it slightly less sweet and works as a preservation agent).
- Heat the pan slowly and stir gently until the liquid starts to boil (after some 15 minutes), then raise the heat and stir briskly, taking care not to get hot splashes of sugary mixture on your hands. Temper the heat if the mixture risks to flow over from the pan.
- Stir until there is resistance from the liquid and there are small pearl-sized bubbles of air coming up from the bottom of the pan. This is the perlé stage of the sugar. If you do have a sugar thermometer it should read 110°C or 230°F. You can now turn of the heat and let the mixture cool. At this stage you could add the agar agar which needs to be added to hot liquids during the cooling down phase and should not be cooked or added to cold liquids.
- When you can hold the pan and handle the mixture, put it in thoroughly cleansed glass jars (I used boiling water with the remaining lemon skin) and let it cool down.
- Do not put a lid on it until it has cooled down completely, but it is wise to put some paper tissue on top to prevent the jam from being ‘tasted’ by insects.