One of my first jobs was as a strawberry picker in the low-lying hills of coastal Pembrokeshire. I would arrive every morning at 9am sharp and leave again at 5pm, having spent the day on my hands and knees scrabbling up and down rown on row of strawberries (the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon verb 'to strew' for the fact that they grow on runners that form web-like structures across the ground). The upshot of this was that I ate a hell of a lot of strawberries, and by the end of the summer was so sick and achey and tired that I vowed never to touch them again. But, with the markets here overflowing with these lush, luminous berries, for at least half the year, it seemed high time to overcome my prejudices.
I discovered: strawberries are the only fruit in the world with their seeds on the outside - approximately 200 of them - and that, in fact, they are not a fruit at all but a 'false' fruit in that it is the seedson the outside that represent the plant's fruit, the bit we eat is simply a fleshy body for them to attach themselves to. I learned also that they are part of the rose family; that Native American Indians named their favourite type Pocohontas; and that Eton Mess (the English public schoolboy's pudding) is a dessert made of strawberries macerated in kirsch, and folded into whipped cream and crushed meringue bits. Above all, though, I learned that strawberries are not what they once were.
For centuries, strawberries have played a hugely important role in European gastronomy. Although ancient Greeks had an aversion to anything red and thus avoided them, the sybaritic Romans loved the wild variety and documented their numerous uses in works by Virgil, Ovid and Pliny the Elder, who considered them potent medicines with the power to cure anything from bad breath to diseases of the blood, liver and spleen. By the Middle Ages, every continent was cultivating them commercially, and in Europe they had begun to appear as symbols of love and of Venus - the Roman goddess of love and beauty - for their colour and unique heart shape.
Europe's native strawberry is the wild strawberry, or fraise de bois (woodland strawberry), and these are particularly prized (and pricey) here in Catalunya come the summer. Fist-sized punnets of pea-sized pink berries appear in the markets more or less from May to September, brought in from the rolling countryside of Girona and the Empordà, and gathered with the same secrecy used by autumnal mushroom hunters. The ski resorts around the Cerdanya are also known hunting grounds in the spring and summer, when picnickers are able to create impromtu feasts. Or you can take the easy route and feast on them at traditional Catalan eateries. They have an almost ethereal taste; explosive fruit intensity with hints of woodland, smoke and pineapple and they make commercially grown varieties seem tame and often flavourless in comparison.
Spain, however, is the European leader of commercially grown strawberries, with the Andalucían province of Huelva accounting for 95 percent of the crop. In an industry worth €2.6 billion annually, the region grows approximately 300,000 tonnes of strawberries a year (the season lasts from January through to July), which is nearly half of all the strawberries in Europe. Ninety-eight percent of those are camarosa strawberries. The remaining two percent are tudia (used mainly in making jam), cartuno (a superior, sweet Spanish strawberry) and carisma (a vigorous new Spanish cultivar, designed for a high yield and sweet flavour probably superior to camarosa).
Camarosa are also typical of the strawberries grown in California, the world's biggest grower. They are large, red and heart-shaped, and they are easily marketed with an unusually long shelf life making them popular among retailers. By early April, it is not uncommon to see wooden punnets of these strawberries for sale for as little as 49 centimos, but the taste is watery and the human and environmental costs are high.
In a damning article originally published in Castilian as 'Las Fresas Que Te Comes' (The Strawberries You Eat), Ramon Germinal calls for a boycott of any strawberries coming out of Huelva, reporting them to be environmentally damaging and detrimental to the health and social conditions of pickers; latterly, immigrants from North Africa, more recently from Poland and Romania, who live in impoverished plastic shanty towns often with no electricity or running water, working in dire conditions for a pittance. 'Hunger camps', as Germinal calls them. If the sign in the market just says fresas, you can be fairly sure this is where they come from.
Locally-grown crops are better simply by virtue of the fact that they've had less far to travel. Strawberries from Maresme - if they are from Sant Pol de Mar, chances are they will be wonderful - or even from Valencia, will taste considerably better. But the plastic ground-covering that blights much of Huelva's plains, and a huge chunk of Almeria's coastline, are evident here too, resulting in fruit that is force grown and consequently lacking in the valuable nutrients and legendary taste for which they were originally famed. As David Karp, writing in The New York Times in April 2005, noted: "It seems that more than any other fruit - strawberries that promise so much, too often disappoint. No other fruit evokes in me such profound ambivalence."
At their finest, fresh and properly ripe strawberries have a big, almost tropical flavour that explodes in the mouth. In this state, they are also one of the most beneficial foods for you - the Romans were right in believing they cured everything - packed with phytochemicals which prevent, and some recent research even suggests can reverse, serious diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stomach ulcers, and lower cholesterol levels.
They are, if you like, the optimal organic pharmaceutical factories, a wonder food far more powerful than their chemical counterparts. Research conducted by Bernard Rabin, at the University of Maryland also found that strawberries may help to optimise brain power. Just ask NASA: frozen strawberries have been on the menu of astronauts in space since the Eighties as a means of protecting their immense brains from radiation exposure.
In April 2005, the UK's Daily Telegraph reported that there is also evidence to suggest that strawberries can help in the anti-aging process. Vitamins, anti-oxidants and phytochemicals are all crucial to a healthy glow, says Michael van Straten, a radio broadcaster on national health and author of a series of 'Superfood' books. Any bright coloured fruits are good, but strawberries are particularly high in anti-oxidants so they can actually break down fine lines and wrinkles.
All we need now is for consumers to demand better, and the commercial growers to return strawberries to their natural state; on a bed of straw rather than a sea of plastic.