Each June, tiny fragolinedi bosco — strawberries from the woods, or what Americans would call wild strawberries — inspire a joyful festival at Lake Nemi, south of Rome.
The people of Nemi, a town on the rim of a volcanic crater above the lake, feast on their native strawberries, which are soaked in balsamic vinegar. They also enjoy them in savory salads with arugula and parmigiano, and in tiramisu, tarts, sorbet, and liqueurs.
Such wild, intensely flavorful strawberries even inspired kings. King Charles V brought a woodland strawberry with a musky flavor to his Louvre gardens in the 1300s. And in the 1500s, the British served their woodland strawberries with cream to Henry VIII, creating the iconic dish now beloved by tennis fans at Wimbledon.I
If you have an anniversary coming up or you’re embarking on a new romance, may we remind you that the strawberry belongs to the family Rosaceae. Yes, the same as roses. And like roses, they are sweet, fragrant, and linked to love.
A suggestive symbol
It might be the seeds on the outside — rather unique among fruit — that have made strawberries, shall we say, symbolically suggestive. Take a close look at the surreal Garden of Earthly Delights from 1490. It’s a twisty scene of naked figures enjoying strawberries in a rather uninhibited manner.
Of course, this is a religious painting, meant to be disapproving of the sinful goings-on. But we moderns are free to draw our own conclusions, and we may choose to see a late-medieval advertisement for strawberries.
Our delicious organic strawberries, by the way, are certified organic by the nonprofit Oregon Tilth. They are individually quick-frozen so you can use only as many as you and your guest desire.
Two New World strawberries mated in France
The modern cultivated strawberry is the result of a horticultural romance, crossing continents and dependent on happenstance.
In brief, it comes from a cross of a tiny scarlet Virginia berry and a big pale one from Chile.
How this came to be is quite a tale. It involves French spy Amédée François Frézier, who braved the pirate-infested waters of the Atlantic and around Cape Horn in the early 18th century.
In Chile, then a Spanish possession, he was impressed by an odd fruit. As he wrote in his diary, “The fruit is generally as big as a walnut, and sometimes as a hen’s egg, of a whitish red, and somewhat less delicious of taste than our wood strawberries.”
The Picunche and Mapuche native people had been cultivating the berries for decades at the mouth of the Bío-Bío River, growing them from seeds probably carried by birds from the north.
Perhaps Frézier knew that his king, Louis XIV, loved the French musky strawberry. In 1712 he brought home five plants. He gave one to the head of the Royal Gardens in Paris, who distributed samples. But there was a problem: His plants needed opposite-sexed plants to bear fruit.
As luck would have it, the Virginia variety had arrived in Europe much earlier. French farmers began planting the three varieties (native musk, Virginia, and Chilean), eventually producing fruit.
A French botanist named the new hybrid Fragaria ananassa, because its flavor reminded him of a pineapple, which comes from the genus Ananas.
Strawberries teach forgiveness
In the New World, as in Italy, strawberries inspired festivals and traditions. The symbolism here is of forgiveness, though, not carnal sin.
In Cherokee legend, for example, the first man and woman have a bad quarrel. Indeed, she was so angry that she left at the break of day, while he was still asleep. When the Sun rose, it had a conversation with the first man, who said he wished she would return.
The Sun took pity on him and shone extra brightly on the ground ahead of the woman, producing a brilliant strawberry patch. When she stopped to taste one, biting it in half, she saw the shape of a bright-red heart and began to feel softer toward the man. She sat down, compelled to eat strawberries, and when he caught up, she presented him with a strawberry.
Bliss! Love returns!
The Nipmuc people from what is now Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut tell a similar story about a brother and sister who reunite over strawberries. Tradition holds that anyone who wishes to make peace with another can invite that person to the strawberry festival.
Strawberries where you wouldn’t expect them
There’s much to be said for dipping strawberries in chocolate or serving a strawberry shortcake or pie. All are rightfully beloved. But try something new!
Contemplate a cooler with basil, lemon, and green tea; a bright-red salad with tomatoes and beets; a strawberry butter; or a soy-sauce-based dressing for pork tenderloin. Add a strawberry twist to salsa, a feta salad, a jalapeño jam, a red pepper gazpacho, or a pizza with bacon, basil, and goat cheese.
The bottom line is that spring, love, and strawberries have gone together for millennia. May you and your loved one carry on the tradition!