In Praise Of Strawberries

Summertime is strawberry time, and I am enjoying it more than ever before. For I recently discovered that the best strawberries don’t come from the supermarket, but from a farm not three miles from my home.

In previous years, strawberry season has often been an exercise in frustration. Keen to avoid the early berries from Spain (grown in hothouses, tended by underpaid African migrant laborers, sprayed with pesticides and harvested before maturity) I would wait impatiently for the local berries to appear on the supermarket shelves.

Alas, the local season being short and subject to the vagaries of unpredictable weather patterns, the coveted heart-shaped fruits rarely made it to my supermarket. What little was harvested locally would be sold at the farmers’ market, and before I knew it, the strawberry season was over and my plans for rows of fragrant jam and a freezer full of pureed strawberries had to be shelved until the following year.

A few weeks ago at my local farmers’ market, an enterprising young grower selling particularly fragrant strawberries told me I could come and pick them myself — at half the price he was charging at the market! My family and I went for a short drive to his farm and as we got out of our car, a beauteous scene unfolded before our eyes: row after row of ruby-red, ripe strawberries glistening in the afternoon sun.

We were handed two wooden crates and set about filling them in the company of the friendly farm dog. Within half an hour we had picked 8 kilograms of sweet, aromatic mara des bois strawberries, probably the most fragrant of all varieties, with a flavor resembling the sweet, spicy miniature forest berries you sometimes discover on particularly successful forest walks. (They remind us why the Italian name for strawberry is fragola – related to the English word ‘fragrant.’)

Best of all, his berries had not been treated with chemicals; to rein in the weeds, the farmer had simply covered much of his field black plastic sheeting into which he had cut holes for the strawberry bushes to grow through.

Strawberries are the very incarnation of nutrient-dense food: low in calories (1 cup only contains 43 calories) and brimming with nutrients. Eating just 10 medium-sized strawberries (1 cup or 140 grams) gives you 82 mg of vitamin C – or 136% of the recommended daily average! Strawberries are also rich sources of fiber, potassium, manganese and folic acid.

Strawberries (and other berries, such as raspberries, blueberries, cranberries and blackberries) are also one of our staunchest allies for dietary cancer prevention. A large body of research has established the anti-cancer potential of berry fruit phytochemicals. These include anthocyanins (pigments that give berry fruits and colorful vegetables their attractive colors), quercetin (a compound also found in onions, apple skins and tea), proanthocyanidins (common to green tea, grape skin and seeds, blueberries, cranberries, dark chocolate, etc.), tannins (particularly ellagitannins, found in strawberries, black raspberries, red raspberries, blackberries, muscadine grapes, some nuts and oak-aged beverages) and other plant chemicals.

Berries’ cancer-protective effects are multiple: they contain powerful antioxidants (notably ellagic acid, particularly prevalent in strawberries and raspberries) that protect our cells from free-radical attacks which can lead to cancerous changes. Berry compounds have also been shown in laboratory experiments to inhibit cancer cell proliferation and to promote the detoxification of carcinogens. They can even induce apoptosis (cell death when a cell is no longer needed) and reinforce the cancer-destroying effects of certain chemotherapy drugs. (See this review for more information on the anti-cancer properties of berries.)

Interestingly, organically grown strawberries appear to have stronger anti-cancer effects than conventionally grown strawberries. Swedish scientists have found that organically grown strawberries contained higher levels of vitamin C and phenolic compounds than their conventional cousins. Tested on human colon cancer and breast cancer cells, both types of strawberry extract reduced cell growth, but the organically grown ones were more effective at inhibiting proliferation than the conventionally grown ones.

If you can’t obtain organically grown strawberries but have a garden (even a small one will do), strawberries are easy to grow, even for beginners, and very rewarding. Not only do they bear up to three flushes of fruit throughout the summer, but they are also perennial, meaning that they flower and carry fruit every year, year after year. They reproduce by producing runners with nodes along them that are the beginning of new strawberry plants, so if you take good care of your strawberries and feed them and trim them when appropriate, they will reward you generously. Detailed information on planting and caring for strawberries can be found here.

Most often I eat strawberries as they come off the bush, or perhaps roughly chopped into creamy ewes’ milk yogurt with a finely shredded mint leaf. Strawberries elevate any morning smoothie to a feast (I usually add some banana and a spoonful of almond butter to make it a little more filling), as well as lending a lovely burst of color and freshness to porridge or muesli in the morning. To make the season last a little longer, I also puree them and freeze them in ice-cube trays or containers, to enjoy in sauces or desserts when fresh strawberries have become a distant dream.