Back in the day, perhaps when you or your parents were young - strawberries were eagerly awaited with baited breath; they were available for a few weeks every year in the height of summer, and savoured for as long as they were available, until they disappeared again until the following year. This short taste sensation usually lasted from early June until Mid August.
However, this is no longer true. Nowadays, we can enjoy British strawberries from April until December, thanks to the fantastic invention of plastic polytunnels, and excellent new varieties of strawberry like the delicious Elsanta. And for those brief few months we can't get British strawberries - we'll import them, from Spain or America or Chile or Guatlewhera, because strawberries are now a PGST line - that stands for Permanent Global Summer Time.
Woah… let's back up there a minute. That sounds suspiciously like an advertising line from a supermarket… doesn't matter which one, they're all the same. Fortunately for them, a lot of people who buy strawberries from the supermarkets don't know what strawberries SHOULD taste like!
First, since this is a feature on British strawberries, let's dismiss the foreign ones. I'm sure they taste fine in the country they were grown in, but when they've been chilled for a week and air-freighted half way around the world, they lose some of their appeal.
So, back to British strawberries. I'm not old enough to remember far back enough of when they were only available for a few months, although I do remember going strawberry picking one year and coming back with a fridge full of fruit, and I'm sure they tasted better back then than they do now. Last year's crop seemed particularly poor; every one I had seemed particularly rubbery and tasteless, with the exception of strawberries purchased from a local farm shop that grew their own.
This is largely down to the varieties grown, and the method by which they're grown. First, the varieties chosen are no longer chosen for their taste; to meet supermarket's increasingly stringent and tough rules for appearance, varieties are chosen for uniformity of size and shape, colour, and most importantly, shelf life. Strawberries are particularly difficult for storing - off the plant, after 4 days they should be consigned to the rubbish bin; this is a definite problem for supermarkets whose cold chain of transport will probably take a minimum of 2 days to get them into stores, and then another 2 days shelf-life on top of that; many varieties just wouldn't cut it. Step forward Elsanta.
Elsanta isn't the nicest tasting strawberry - although it's not a bad one if you grow it yourself. For the supermarkets however, it's grown under hideous polytunnels, coated with chemicals and picked three or four days before they're properly ripe, and that's just disastrous for a strawberry. They remain vibrant looking, all crisp and firm and red, but they taste poor and feel like they're made of rubber. No thanks!
On to the cultivation - how does the method by which these fruit are grown affect the taste? Simple. Back in the day (such a fantastic saying) strawberries would be grown in the open field, and ripened by pure, unfiltered sunlight. Nowadays, they're grown in polytunnels. These are huge, obscene structures made out of plastic stretched over metal supporting loops that blight the countryside. Inside them lie strawberries, planted into soil sterilised by a cocktail of chemicals, irrigated by computer controlled watering systems, surrounded by climate control and all manner of chemical application devices.
The plastic polytunnels are undoubtedly an eyesore that ruin the countryside wherever they popup (it's estimated thousands acres of the British countryside is now covered in polytunnels). But, they aren't the only problem; alongside the polytunnels spring up makeshift villages of mobile homes, sanitation and entertainment facilities, to house the migrant populations who harvest the strawberries on the cheap. Migrant populations who often bring crime along with them, further helping lower land values in the area.
Until recently, neither the polytunnels nor villages required planning permission; a fact that has caused the destruction of a fair chunk of countryside and driven many people living in the countryside to despair. But now, the villagers are fighting back; in Surrey, a Planning inspector recently ruled that polytunnels and the villages require planning permission; but it's too late for many.
But enough of the socio-economic problems; we like to provide a broad picture of things, but back to the fruit. What can you do if you don't want nasty, rubbery, poor tasting strawberries? Is there no hope?
Of course there's hope. There are many fruit farms around the country currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity as people realise how cheated they are by Elsanta-berry. A quick google search for "fruit farm England" or specify your area and you should find some. These are typically farms that grow strawberries (and other fruit such as raspberries) by traditional means (i.e. in a field, not under plastic) and very often are "pick-your-own" for a few weeks each year, and are excellent value for money, and a great afternoon out for the family.
Also, let's not forget the most satisfying way - grow your own. Strawberry plants are available from March to June from garden centres and DIY stores the country over, usually for as little as a pound a plant. Ok, so it will take a few plants to keep a family going, but even if you were to only plant 3 or 4 strawberry plants, and replace just a fraction of your supermarket supply of strawberries with home-grown, then the supermarkets lose out. But then again… once you've tasted home grown, you'll just want to grow more… check out our Strawberry Article on growing strawberries yourself.
And so, the moral of the strawberry is… if you want to taste British strawberries as they should be tasted… the local supermarket may not be your best place to shop.