Food and Drink 

Rah, rah the red and white. Strawberries and accoutrements: perfect companions for Canada Day

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What’s red and white and red and white, besides the Canadian flag? How about strawberry shortcake, strawberries and vanilla ice cream, or a lovely strawberry sabayon?

Despite this cool wet June that hasn’t exactly been strawberry or human weather, early local strawberries are all on board, waiting for you to pick up a basket or three in time for a snazzy red and white dessert for Canada Day.

Thank goodness commercial hybrids have finally gone back to flavour. Remember a few years back when we were all marching back to the stores to return our baskets of crabapple-sized strawberries that were watery, tasteless, and half-destroyed with brown rot? Hooray for growers moving on to better and better-tasting producers, though nothing can match the wild fruit.

I remember eating wild strawberries plucked straight from the fields of west-central Alberta when I was a kid, thinking, yep, if I was a bear, I’d sure be gobbling these up, as I nervously looked over my shoulder to watch for competition. Though they were ever so tiny, their taste was so sweet and powerful they were 10 times more satisfying than their commercial cousins.

Besides the much smaller, tastier berries, the wild strawberry plant has no runners like its cultivated cousins — and here I say “cultivated” not “commercial” for some valiant gardeners still defy the many pests and fungi that can attack strawberry plants and plant a few in their gardens or flowerbeds.

Without runners, the stems holding the berries on the wild plants do look like straw piled higgledy-piggledy, which some believe is the provenance of the name ”strawberry.” Others think, as I did when I was a kid and saw my grandfather mulch the plants with straw, that that’s where the name came from. But that practice is fairly recent and could not have influenced the origins of the name.

Still others suggest the “straw” in “strawberry” is from an old Anglo-Saxon verb “strea” meaning “strew”, referring to the look of the wild berries as being strewn about, or the way the achenes (pronounced ay-keens, accent on the second syllable) — the tiny dark flecks most of us call seeds — look scattered over the surface of the berry.

Not to confuse you, but by scientific definition those achenes are the actual fruit: a small, dry, indehiscent one-seeded fruit with a thin wall, to be exact, as in the achene of the sunflower, for a more familiar example. In fact, strawberries, as well as blackberries and raspberries, are really not berries at all; rather they are brambles. (Tomatoes are actually berries, as are lemons — but let’s not make everyone too crazy and leave that for a later column.) As for the strawberry, botanically speaking, it is a greatly enlarged stem end or receptacle in which are embedded the many smaller fruits, or achenes.

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