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This one is berry special

Once expensive and hard to come by, strawberries are now so plentiful and reasonably priced that it’s a shame not to experiment with the flavour. Vir Sanghvi explores further. Read on.

india Updated: May 21, 2012 12:16 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Have you noticed that there seems to be a glut of strawberries in the market these days? At nearly every restaurant and pastry shop, the chefs seem to be churning out strawberry pastries and tarts. At traffic lights (especially in Bombay) hawkers come up to you with reasonably-priced baskets of strawberries. Fruit sellers urge you to buy freshly-grown strawberries.

It was all very different when I was growing up in Bombay in the Sixties and Seventies. In those days, we thought of strawberries as something that went into jam or flavoured ice-cream. Fresh strawberries were expensive and hard to come by unless you went to the hill station of Mahabaleshwar where they were grown. For many people of my generation, a trip to Mahabaleshwar was no more than an excuse to eat lots of strawberries.

But now, you get so many strawberries at prices that are surprisingly affordable that chefs put them on everything. Nearly every dessert at some fancy restaurant will have a strawberry garnish. And the new generation of Indian pastry chefs do not grant strawberries the respect and reverence they were once accorded. For them, the strawberry is just another seasonal fruit.

Strawberry in chocolateBut of course, the strawberry can never be just another fruit. For a start, there are all the pop-culture associations. It’s not just the Beatles (though I gather that Strawberry Fields was a lunatic asylum and John Lennon was not thinking of fruit when he wrote the song) but it is also Pretty Woman. Who can forget Richard Gere ordering a bottle of champagne and a bowl of strawberries as he escorts Julia Roberts to his suite for the very first time? (The strawberries bring out the flavour of the champagne, he explains.)

And then there are all the glamorous associations. Anybody who has read about Wimbledon will know that spectators spend the entire tournament gorging on strawberries and cream. And small wild strawberries have long fascinated gourmets (and Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish film director).

Intrigued by the strawberry glut, I did some checking. It turns out that the strawberry is not native to India. (No surprises there.) But it is one of those rare fruits that was already reasonably well-known in Europe (though mostly in its small, wild form) when it was found in the Americas.

The strawberry that we know today however, is a hybrid. It was created from the American variety in the 19th century when British gardeners cross-bred strawberry plants to create the ‘Keens Seedling’ (one of the gardeners was called Michael Keens) which was a large flavourful strawberry of the sort we eat today. Since then, scientists have spent a lot of time and money developing other varieties and there are hundreds of kinds of strawberries available today. (Though the European wild strawberry was first cultivated as early as the 14th century, it is so small and the yield is so low that you only ever find it at gourmet markets these days.)

Some accounts say that the British brought the strawberry to India at the end of the 19th century (i.e. shortly after the hybrid version had been created) but the plant seems to have reached Mahabaleshwar in the 1920s. Ever since then, Mahabaleshwar has been the strawberry capital of India.

It dines out on that reputation, organising strawberry festivals, demanding a GI certification (like say, Darjeeling tea) for its strawberries and claiming to account for over 80 per cent of all strawberries produced in India.

The current glut has its origins in a change in strawberry farming styles in Mahabaleshwar. An Australian high-yielding variety of strawberry was introduced to Mahabaleshwar in 1992 and production began to shoot up. Some accounts say that Sharad Pawar who ran Maharashtra in the 1990s (as he still does) and is a farmer himself, ordered the planting of the new strawberry breed. Since then, Mahabaleshwar’s production has multiplied and in other parts of Maharashtra, farmers have been encouraged to grow strawberries. This has contributed to the lowering of prices. (He can’t do much about onions but the man, sure as hell, can tackle strawberry prices…)

Since the boom of the 1990s, strawberry cultivation has spread to other parts of India. The strawberries we get in Delhi are often sourced from Himachal and Punjab. They grow strawberries in Bangalore. And even Meghalaya has a strawberry growing tradition now!

Strawberry farmers believe that with the general drop in strawberry prices, the fruit will become more popular as it becomes more accessible. Though we no longer regard the strawberry as being rare or exotic, we still don’t buy many strawberries for home use, preferring to eat them when we go out. Strawberry farmers believe that once we start bringing them home, the demand will shoot up and the market will increase.

They are probably right. The thing about strawberries is that even those of us who hardly ever eat fresh strawberries are familiar with the flavour. We know it from strawberry ice-cream (even though much of it uses synthetic flavouring), milk-shakes and desserts. We have all eaten strawberry jam at some stage and we recognise the distinctive taste of the fruit.

So why shouldn’t we eat it at home?

My guess is that one of the things holding us back is that Indians like to wash and (perhaps) peel their fruit and to then eat it raw. That’s how we eat oranges, apples, guavas, litchis, and nearly all other fruit.

But this approach does not always work with strawberries. The truth is that most fresh strawberries available in India are simply not sweet enough. (Forgive me, farmers of Mahabaleshwar!) When we bite into them, we recognise the flavour but find that it lacks the sweet taste we associate with strawberry jam or strawberry ice-cream.

This does not worry chefs or pâtissiers who know how to combine the strawberries with sweet ingredients (chocolate, most often) or poach them in sugar syrup or serve them with ice-cream. (You can’t really enjoy strawberries and cream with Indian strawberries unless you sprinkle them with lots of sugar first.) But it does make a difference to us at home because – unlike the West – we eat our fruit neat and not as part of some dessert.

The strawberry farmers need to find some way around this. My guess is that if they start marketing their product as best eaten with ice-cream (in which case, the acid of the fruit provides a counterpoint to the sweetness of the ice-cream), they may have greater success in penetrating the home market. I can’t see strawberries working well with most Indian sweets. (Strawberry jalebis? Strawberry gulab jamuns? Naah!) But you could, I guess, make strawberry shrikhand or strawberry kheer. (Okay, not really, either.)

I know Richard Gere likes his champagne with strawberries (or not – from what I remember of Pretty Woman, the Gere character did not drink, so the champagne was for Julia), but in my experience champagne does not really go with strawberries and the claim that the strawberries bring out the flavour of the grape is bogus.

But drink a sweet fizzy wine (say a sparkling Moscato) and the combination could work. On the other hand, my friend Deepak Ohri serves Perrier Jouet rose champagne with sweet Korean strawberries at the bar at Bangkok’s Lebua and the combination works brilliantly. However, given that you and I, unlike Deepak, have no access to Korean strawberries, or bottles of Perrier Jouet rose, I think we are still best off avoiding the champagne and strawberries combination.

But some flavours do go well with strawberry. Vanilla is one. Balsamico is another. It is an easy test. Put some strawberries in a wine glass. Top with good (i.e. not synthetic) vanilla ice-cream and then pour a little balsamic vinegar on top. It makes for a surprising and very grown-up dessert.

If your strawberries are dry or not sweet enough, cook them with a little balsamico or Grand Marnier (which combines the flavours of brandy and oranges) on a very low flame for a longish period. The strawberries that result will taste great in any dessert.

Remember also that strawberries hide their flavour inside the fruit. (Those things on the outside of each strawberry are the seeds – strawberries tend to work inside-out.) You can tease out the flavour either with sugar or with acid (hence the balsamico) but for texture, it often helps to add a bit of biscuit (shortcake?) to any strawberry dessert. Nuts work well too and my favourite strawberry + vanilla ice-cream + balsamico combination can be best enhanced by adding sliced almonds which not only add texture but also have a flavour that complements strawberry.

Many people like chocolate and strawberry but I find that the pairing only works when one of the components is not sweet. Use dense, dark chocolate with strawberries poached in something sweet and the dessert will take off. Or use a sweetish chocolate to counteract the acid of the strawberries.

What you do is really up to you. But when strawberries are so plentiful and so reasonably priced, it is a shame not to take some home and to experiment with the flavour.

- From HT Brunch, February 20

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