Monday, June 20, 2011

Wild Strawberries - Pure and Simple!

Wimbledon has started! Two weeks of Pimms and lemonade, strawberries and cream,  rain, groundsheets and the odd smattering of tennis. What's that got to do with a blog about wild food? Not a lot, except for the strawberry part.

Apparently, the English word strawberry has nothing to do with the straw that farmers often put under the crop to stop the fruit from spoiling and has everything to do with its origin as a "strew"berry, meaning to scatter. This is probably as a reference to its habit of spreading across an area of ground by means of its runners. This is why you'll often find a patch of strawberries rather than one or two in splendid isolation. It's a fabulous little plant and, as well as being good eating, has a fair few medicinal uses traditionally being used to cure fevers, gout and the like. Culpeper declared it to be "singularly good for the healing of many ills."

You may well have encountered many strawberry plants if you've spent time out and about but, have you ever had your eye on patch of strawberry leaves in the spring only to become a bit miffed as to why no fruit has developed to harvest? It could be that you had your eye on the Wild Strawberry's second cousin, the Barren Strawberry. Even the latin name Potentilla sterilis takes great pains to tell us that this isn't a real strawberry at all. To avoid wasting your time and the inevitable disappointment in summer, it's worth learning a few distinguishing characteristics between the two species before the tell-tale emergence of fruit, or not.

Wild Strawberry

Barren Strawberry

  • The Barren Strawberry flowers earlier, typically February-May, whereas the Wild Strawberry flowers May-July.
  • Barren petals are slightly notched and more widely separated.
  • The central part of the flower is domed in the Wild Strawberry but not the Barren.
  • The leaves of the Barren Strawberry are softer, less shiny, less noticeably veined and less sharply toothed.
  • My personal favourite though, is that the centre tooth is the smallest tooth on the Barren Strawberry leaf and longer in the Wild Strawberry. This is my fail safe distinguishing feature.
If you have a quick look again, at the first photo in particular, you'll see the glamorous nature of strawberries - they've painted their nails crimson. Gorgeous!

Anyway, confident that you have identified strawberries proper, you can go to your patch in the sunny woodland clearing or grassy bank in June-July to gather the goods. I'm not just talking about collecting the fruit either, the fresh leaves are good in salads and tea. I always find it easier to see the strawberries if I get down to plant level. The fruit is pretty small, about the size of a pea, but when you catch a glimpse of the ruby amongst the green it really is a thrill. Unless you've found a beauty of a patch, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to easily collect massive quantities of strawberries. If you do, it is unlikelier still that they will make it back to your kitchen. If you have restraint enough to refrain from eating your bounty on the spot, I offer you my deepest respect and a couple of simple recipes.

Wild Strawberries With Cream Cheese
100g Wild Strawberries per person
75g full-cream cream cheese
1-2 tablespoons caster sugar per person

Not much to this one. Beat the cream cheese and sugar together and serve with the strawberries. It's simple yet entirely delicious!

Wild Strawberry Leaf Tea
Bruise a handful of young strawberry leaves and pop them into a teapot. Cover with boiling water and allow to infuse for about 5 minutes. Strain into cups and serve with a slice of lemon if desired.

Wild Strawberry Salad Dressing
You'll need equal quantites of strawberries and red wine vinegar, perhaps a cup of each. Mash the strawberries in a jar and stir in the vinegar. Cover with a lid and leave on a windowsill for a few days -give it a shake whenever you remember. After 4 days strain through muslin into a sterilised jar or bottle. Use in place of ordinary vinegar for a rich and fruity salad dressing.

Getting back to Wimbledon, how's about this beauty from Mark Hix?

Wild Strawberries and Pimm's Jelly

..or this one from Paul at WIld Food, Wild Mushrooms and Fishing?

Wild Strawberry and Rose Meringue Roulade with Crystalised Rose Petals

There are many other recipes to be found and I've seen some on the internet asking you to collect 2lbs of WIld Strawberries HaaahaaaHAAhaaaaHAAAAhaaaa!!!! Errr okay!! But listen, I'll be honest and say that I only made these dishes in the interests of testing for the blog. I would generally only use cultivated strawberries in most recipes. The reason being is that they take such a long time to pick in any quantity and I actually prefer my strawberries to be pure and simple - straight from plant to me in under a second! That's pretty hard to beat!