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Strawberry fields forever

Camel's Back Harvest carries on a noble tradition
Strawberry fields forever at Camel's Back Harvest in Pemberton Valley.

On a July day in 1764, a young French lad of 17 presented King Louis XV with a pot of strawberries.

The plant was something of a miracle. It had come from Chile and was laden with gorgeous strawberries of "extraordinary size and beauty," something rarely seen in Europe of the day.

It wasn't that Europe was strawberry-less; the musky strawberry and the wood strawberry had been cultivated there and in Russia for centuries. But early European explorers and colonialists were astonished to find amazingly large and delicious strawberries like nothing they'd seen or tasted before in Chilean marketplaces — dozens of strawberries for sale wrapped in cabbage leaves, as "common and as abundant as other fruits."

The trick was that the five Chilean strawberry plants (Fragaria chiloensis), which had been so carefully transported from Chile to Marseilles by French engineer, explorer and part-time spy, Amédée François Frézier, happened to all be female. Obviously he hadn't considered such matters.

Fortunately, the enterprising young teen in King Louis' court, Antoine Nicolas Duchesne, knew better and took pollen from the musky strawberry plant — cursed and pulled from 18th century gardens for being "stubborn" and barren as no one understood the need for both male and female plants in the equation to bear fruit — and hand-pollinated this one Chilean plant.

His innovation earned great praise from the king, who ordered Mademoiselle Basseporte, the famous botanical artist, to paint the berries for the Royal Botanic Library collection.

The young Antoine has our undying gratitude as well, for the plant he created was the progenitor of the modern cultivated strawberry plant, Fragaria X ananassa or the pineapple or pine strawberry, named for the Chilean variety whose fruit is pineapple-shaped.

Duchesne went on to become a great botanist. He puttered about his strawberry plants in the lush gardens of Versailles, and eventually wrote a study of the strawberry that's become a classic in natural history.

He also became a wonderful botanical artist himself, sketching beautiful, delicate images of Fragaria in their many forms, from the wild bisexual ones of Sweden to the single-leafed wood strawberry named for Versailles itself.

You can enjoy Duchesne's drawings and learn much more about the history and physiology of strawberries in George M. Darrow's wonderful book, The Strawberry, from which much of this information was plucked like so many tasty berries. Sections of the book are also available on line at the U.S. National Agriculture Library.

Darrow was simply another in the line of great people who've become enamoured with strawberries. Born in the late 1800s in Vermont, he was the American authority on all things strawberry for decades.

How fabulous to dedicate yourself to strawberries! I envy people like that, and the latest in this noble legacy live right around the corner in Pemberton Meadows.

In a lovely addition to the age-old tale of strawberry love and lineage, Carrie and Remi Charron have inherited the mantle of pick-your-own tremendous strawberries from the go-to place in Pemberton Valley for decades, the MacEwans' Strawberry U-Pick Farm.

Carrie, whose maiden name is Kuurne — a name that's resonated in Sea to Sky country for decades — grew up in the valley but moved away. Later, when she and Remi, both engineers, decided they wanted a happier, more sustainable lifestyle for themselves and their kids, Maxine, five, and Cedric, six, they ended up back in Pemberton. To be precise, they ended up right on the farm — and right in the farmhouse — with Carrie's mom and dad, Roxy and Mark, who've been growing those famous Pemberton potatoes for ages, and could share all kinds of knowledge and support.

Camel's Back Harvest, as the strawberry farm is poetically called, is named for Camel's Back Mountain right next to it with its camel-like humps. (Camels were also run up through Lillooet during the Klondike gold rush). The strawberry of choice you'll be picking — free from pesticides and herbicides — is the Benton, thanks to all the plants Carrie and Remi inherited from the MacEwans, along with their blessing and expertise.

The Benton is yet another great strawberry stemming from that Chilean "pineapple" line started centuries ago. Developed by Oregon State University, it's named for the county where the university is located. Bentons are known for their deep red, flavourful berries.

"People around here ask for them by name," says Carrie. "It is the variety that the MacEwans have been growing for the last 20 years and it's very popular in Pemberton with the people who pick. They love Bentons. It's the sweetness, and they have a wonderful strawberry taste to them."

You can hit the strawberry fields and pick your own starting early July, or book your ready-pick orders. (Go to Camel's Back Harvest Facebook page to confirm u-pick dates.)

Just remember, when you're out amongst the leafy rows, enjoying the magnificent views, with the bees and butterflies flitting about you and the wind in your hair, to pop a few ripe Bentons into your mouth and say a quiet thanks to that young, teenaged Duchesne. And to the Barrows, MacEwans and Charrons of the world who've given us strawberry fields forever.

Then rush home with your little red treasures and whip up this delicious cake, compliments of Remi's mom. It's all in the family.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist whose first favourite ice cream was strawberry.

Remi's mom's upside-down cake.

This is an easy recipe that's quite versatile. You can use fresh or frozen berries or other fruit.

1. Layer strawberries or a mix of strawberries and rhubarb at the bottom of a 13" x 9" cake pan. Use whole medium-sized berries or cut larger ones in half. If they're sliced, line the bottom until you have about a half inch of fruit.

2. Sprinkle fruit with approx. 1/2 cup of sugar, depending on the sweetness of the fruit.

3. Add the cake mixture on top.

4. Bake for 45 minutes at 350ºF. (This may take longer if you're using frozen berries. Check with a toothpick in the middle to make sure the cake is done.)

For the cake batter, mix together:

2 cups flour

1 cup sugar

3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

Add and mix in:

2/3 cup butter (softened)

2 eggs

1 cup milk

1 mashed frozen or fresh banana (optional)