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Food in the 'Hood

Sex and the Single Strawberry — Part III

In Part II, a French spy, Amédée-François Frézier, on a mission from Louis XIV returned home with strawberry plants from Chile. The remarkable berries, which produced fruit that dwarfed the European, surprisingly did not blossom on the Continent. What had happened?

It took the farmers of Brittany to find a way to overcome the Chilean strawberry’s apparent barrenness. In 1740, the gardeners of Brest, who had somehow acquired the plant, managed to get the strawberry to fruit.

Brittany’s mild year-round climate resembled that of the coastal valleys of the strawberry’s birthplace. But it was probably the technique the Breton farmers employed that produced results. They planted alternating rows of the Chilean and the Virginian, the first American import. The experiment was successful — the Chileans blossomed, producing large, plump fruit.

What had happened in Brest to stimulate the fruiting of the seemingly sterile Chilean? Frézier, in his search for the largest berries, had brought only female plants back from Chile. Perhaps inadvertently, the Breton gardeners enabled the Virginian strawberries to pollinate the neighboring Chileans. But for this to happen, the fruits would have to be of different sexes.

Although it seems self-evident today, this view was not accepted in the 18th century. Even prominent scientists like Linnaeus rejected it.

A young French gardener figured out the strawberry conundrum and, in the process, demonstrated the heretical concept of cross-fertilization. Equally important, he revolutionized the methods of plant breeding.

Antoine Nicolas Duchesne, a prodigy who studied Latin at the age of four, learned about horticulture from his work at the Versailles palace’s Trianon garden. His father, Louis XIV’s superintendent of estates, got Antoine the job.

Antoine was intrigued with a strikingly different type of strawberry springing up in gardens around Europe. In his Natural History of Strawberries (1766), published when Antoine was just 19, he proposed that the newcomer was a hybrid of the Virginia and Chilean strawberries. Familiar with the Brittany experience, he suggested that the two were crossing, as in Brest, when planted next to each other. He satisfied himself by crossbreeding strawberry plants in his garden and eventually producing the new variety.

The hybrid, Antoine wrote, was related to the Chilean like a “son with his mother.” It combined the most attractive features of its parents. It possessed the firmness, plumpness, and sweet-tart flavor of the Chilean with the scarlet hues, softness, and juiciness of the Virginia. It would be called the Pine, because of its pineapplish fragrance.

The two wandering New World fruits had finally succeeded in mating, in the Old World. They are the ancestors of the modern race of strawberries.

Commercial breeders and growers built on the scientific groundwork Antoine had laid. The English gardener Michael Keen continued tinkering with the Chilean and Virginian strawberries and, in 1821, produced Keens Seedling, a Pine that could be taken to market. William Cobbett, an English horticulturist, was exultant about the breed: “This strawberry which is the only one used for forcing in the King’s gardens, has nearly supplanted every other sort. It is early; it is a prodigious bearer; the fruit is large and very large; and it surpasses in my opinion all the others in flavour.”

Remarkably transformed, the strawberry returned to America. Our robust, large fruited berries are descendants of the Seedling.

The domesticated strawberry was now the norm in America. Many of us still long for the berry of the woods and fields, for something unprocessed and uncorrupted. Our yearnings reflect the strong romantic impulse in our culture. While extolling the wild strawberry, Emerson and Thoreau denigrated its civilized kin. “Strawberries bluntly lose their flavor in garden beds,” Emerson wrote. Thoreau did “not think much of strawberries in gardens, nor in market baskets, raised and sold by your excellent hard-fisted neighbor. It is those little natural beds or patches of them on the dry hillsides that interest me most.”

I still eagerly await the arrival of the early summer strawberries at our farmers market. They may have been tamed, but they are still a delight.

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Seeking Strawberries

Strawberry is one of the bubble tea flavors that Du Froya (1709 Conn. Ave.; tel., 558-6852), the Dupont Circle shop is introducing to the neighborhood.

For a taste of organic preserves try Cascadian Farms Strawberry Fruit Spread sold by Yes Organic Market (1825 Col. Rd.; tel., 462-5150).

Copyright (c) 2010 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Joel Denker. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §§107 & 108 (“fair use”).

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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