As anyone who has picked their own knows (sorry), the best time to eat a strawberry is immediately after picking. I would go further – the very best time is fresh from the ground on a warm Summer’s evening, the berry almost hot and bursting with sweet juice.
I only learned this very recently and it happened because in February this year I got lucky. After a nine year wait I was allocated an allotment plot in Edinburgh. I was even luckier to discover 20 well-established strawberry plants lying dormant under netting. All I had to do was clear weeds, remove dead leaves, put some straw down and wait.
Six months later, they are prolific. Each plant pregnant with heavy berries clustered under leaves atop the straw. In full flow the patch generates around half a kilo of ripe fruit every day, so the biggest challenge is finding time to pick. One kilo, about £4 worth, takes around 30 minutes, hardly value for money but unquestionably time well spent. Kneeling on warm straw in the evening sun, plucking handfuls of plump berries as nearby birds sing into the warm breeze sure beats a soulless supermarket queue.
I have invited friends and nearby allotment holders to PYO sessions to manage the glut. Nevertheless, I am afraid to say some berries have been missed, left unpicked to turn over-ripe on the plant, creating a distinctive jammy smell that serves as a reminder of inadequate harvesting.
Even those picked perfectly ripe can turn foosty in a bowl within hours. Chilling them extends lifespan but dulls flavour. My preference to keep them warm, risking rapid decay, is an indulgence made easier by growing rather than buying because it means they are plentiful, practically free and there is zero waste. Unpicked berries rot into the soil. Uneaten ones become compost.
Producing strawberries commercially, an impressive logistical exercise, inevitably creates waste. We have, cleverly but not harmlessly, replaced nature’s closed-loop cycles of growth, decay and regrowth with a linear supply chain. Strawberries grown in one place are packaged, transported and sold to be consumed and disposed of in another. The loop does not close. Each stage uses energy and generates waste.
Let’s be realistic though, we all rely on such commercial food systems to some extent. Not all of us can grow or pick our own food and certainly not all of it. But perhaps those systems could be redesigned to more closely replicate the cycles of nature, where waste is almost always zero and energy efficiency built in. Reducing and recycling packaging and composting leftovers instead of landfill is one way to move towards this.
My first proper strawberry growing experience has been incredible and I recommend it to anyone who gets the chance to try. There is a uniquely life-affirming pleasure to be had from nurturing plants to produce berries and real joy from eating them, either straight from the plant or indeed later, with ice cream and messy-faced children round the kitchen table.
Joe lives in Edinburgh with his wife and two young daughters. He works for Soil Association Scotland, a food and farming charity, and is passionate about good food. He writes here in a personal capacity. Connect with Joe via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram or via email: [email protected].