Strawberry picking at the farm felt different this year. The wind was strong enough that it made the walk down the pebbly, unfinished path to the strawberry slopes tentative. It was blowing away the small, paper quart containers used to collect the berries, as well as the strawberry fragrance that normally wafts through the air. My summer vacation had just begun, it was a weekday, yet there were quite a few people picking fruit, including one person who said, “isn’t this better than being at work?” Besides the wind, the sun was out shining brightly, and the lady at the farm stand promised that there were plenty of berries to be picked. It is always hard to tell because the strawberries, especially when heavy and ripe bend their stems down to the ground, away from the sun and covered under an overlapping layer of leaves.
Researchers use genetics to determine the geographical origin of a plant. A likely place of origin would have ancient varieties of the plant1. There might also be diverse varieties of the plant, each different because of a few variant genes that evolution has selected to help the plant adapt and thrive in the local condition1. The fact that a plant originated and thrived in a certain geographical location, to begin with, as opposed to anywhere else, highlights the unique, evolutionarily-shaped relationship of that plant to that region. It is quite possible that the plant might never have arisen if not for the existence of this harmony between plant and geography. In this sense, it seems, there is no fruit more American than a strawberry. And, standing on an American farm with strawberry fields, it is hard not to think about what made the geography so unique to create a strawberry?
The genetic material of living things is dynamic. It is constantly changing, although slowly. But not all changes are retained, only those that help it thrive better in an environment. And so, plants like the strawberry seem to have migrated from their original regions of birth to many other places, including Europe. They generated variants, by selecting and retaining genetic changes, that allowed them to thrive better in the new location. They adapted, and as a result, sometimes, new varieties of strawberries arose. And so, there are Chandler and Earligrow; Gariguette and Mara; and, not to forget, the fraises des bois, or wild alpine strawberries.
An 1858 French cookbook mentions the use of a red copper preserve pan or bassine à confiture2; a 1927 French cookbook3 elaborates by saying that a red copper preserve pan was “the foundation of well-cooked preserves,” that it was “passed down from one generation to another”, and that it could be shared between neighbor and neighbor or even rented from the neighborhood coppersmith.
Is the influence of strawberries in America the same as its influence in France? Can two regions of the world benefit from each other through a strawberry, the way the fruit can from the two of them?
History is filled with instances where seasonal food was preserved to savor its flavor over a long period of time. For strawberries, there is strawberry preserve, including American strawberries preserved with some French influence.
What qualities do you like in a strawberry preserve?
1. Origin of food crops connect countries worldwide. Khoury CK et al (2016) in Proceedings Royal Society B, 283: 20160792
2. La cuisinière de la campagne et de la ville: ou nouvelle cuisine économique, (1858) by Louis-Eustache Audot.
3. La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E.Saint-Ange (1927)
On the relationship between, plants, geography, and humans, my grandmother, Champa Venkatachalam reflects in the comments section below.