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Strawberries - Manet, Renoir, Jane Grigson and Snow White

"When Chardin lived, wild strawberries were the only ones. His contemporary, Diderot, described them as being like 'the tip of a wet-nurses' breasts'. Our plump round large strawberry did not exist - anywhere." Jane Grigson

I was going to write about 2021 today, but then I tore off yesterday's page of my Impressionist desk calendar and there was the painting on the left - Basket of Strawberries by Edouard Manet 1882 and I just had to do it the honour of a post on strawberries. By 1882 modern large strawberries were available. Chardin's painting, mentioned in Jane Grigson's quote, on the right, dated 1705 is of wild strawberries

I have done strawberries before of course, but this time I am not going to talk about what you can do with them. So many thousands of things of course, and you could do worse to start with these two articles with links - 10 ways to make the most of Australia's bargain strawberries and Tim Dowling's rundown in The Guardian. They both include everything from the ultra creative, even weird, through classics and everyday stuff, to drinks. Check them out, some of those things looked really quite interesting. Or just follow this tip from Mark Diacono of River Cottage:

"If you are ever in any doubt as to what to do with strawberries, allow cream and something crunchy to come to the rescue. Eton Mess is as marvellous as it is simple ..." Mark Diacono

Or this one from Nigel Slater:

"All too often strawberries deceive us by smelling better than they taste. I find it helps to introduce another element that will bring a bit of life to the berries – a squeeze of orange juice perhaps, the merest dash of balsamic vinegar or the subtlest grinding of pepper. The most successful additions I have found to date are passionfruit and raspberries. You need to get the balance right, but either will make the berries sing that bit louder once you involve cream, crème fraîche or sweet, soft cheese." Nigel Slater

So here is an account of what I discovered in my journey from turning over that page to sitting down to write this post. It was quite a lot really - and very this and that.

Let's begin with that painting. Manet painted it in the last few years of his life. He was very ill with syphilis and died young at the age of 51. He was not able to move around much and so his last paintings tend to be still lifes, small ones at that - of fruit and flowers. Eventually the still lifes account for one fifth of his output so forget those early masterpieces of Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, Olympia and Un Bar aux Folies Bergère. I found a couple of quotes from an article by Roberta Mackenzie of The New York Times about this part of his œuvre - words from an art expert. I have none:

"In his wake, still life became a primary route toward the new, the abstract and the personal, as artist after artist -- van Gogh and Gauguin, Braque and Picasso, Matisse and Bonnard, Marsden Hartley and Stuart Davis -- arranged a few objects on tables by their easels and began to investigate their formal and emotional potential. ... while the paring away of form gave paint a new visibility, it also brought an intensity of feeling by revealing the artist's touch, stroke by considered stroke, and by suggesting these simplified subjects as resonant microcosms, sufficient unto themselves." Roberta Smith - The New York Times

He doesn't seem to have painted any more strawberries though although his contemporary Renoir loved them and has several paintings of them. He too spent his last few years incapacitated at home and so turned to still life. I have to say his are more vibrant in colour and perhaps more interesting? There are more.

But then you could ask yourself why Manet's strawberries are of darker hue? Perhaps they mirror his emotional state. They certainly have power although they do not glow like Chardin's or Renoir's.

"no painting, however simple or abstract, can be devoid of the humanity and temperament of the person who made it." Roberta Smith - The New York Times

Van Gogh, interestingly painted no strawberries as far as I can see - perhaps he could not afford any, or find any wild ones in the wood. Neither did Picasso or Matisse - much later of course.

So much for art. Now to commerce. The first article I found which was one of those offering suggestions for what to do with them, started with a very short introduction about the current glut of strawberries that we are experiencing here in Australia - in complete contrast to those empty shelves, but also because of COVID. It seems that this is partly because of the increase in online shopping for food. Why should that make a difference? Well:

"strawberries are a “good looking fruit” – which makes them ideal impulse-aisle temptations. When you walk into the supermarket, you see the big, colourful display of berries. You inspect the punnets and think ‘oh, I should grab a few’.” Rachel Mackenzie - Berries Australia

When shopping online you are shopping for specific things. Well I assume you are which is yet another reason for not doing it. Where's the fun in simply shopping from a list, without seeing what's on special, what looks gorgeous or interesting, or new? And I am certainly a sucker for the berries on display as you walk into the supermarket.

I'm also guessing that the pick-your-own farms are not doing so well either at the moment because we are a bit less keen on venturing out. So the surplus from those places must be going to the supermarket. Hospitality venues and events are also not purchasing these days due to closures and cancellations. So a surplus of strawberries - resulting in those at $1.00 a punnet that I bought the other week to make jam. A bonus for me.

And now - thanks to the River Cottage man, next time I see them at a similarly low price I shall make some granita - blend a kilo; sieve to extract the seeds; whisk in 200g icing sugar and juice of 1-2 lemons and freeze in a wide container. 20 minutes before serving remove and finally scrape into shards with a fork before serving immediately. Divine.

"The first few of the summer set the soul dancing like no other fruit." Mark Diacono - River Cottage A-Z

It's a romantic fruit isn't it. I remember that gorgeous film of the 60s, possibly the most romantic film ever - Elvira Madigan - beautiful stars - especially Pia Degermark - gorgeous scenery - Mozart's 21st piano concerto ... Indeed that film may have been responsible for a Mozart revival. It was a doomed love story - forbidden love, so they ran away and lived off the land which was impossible. Suffice to say it did not end well, but why it is mentioned here is because there they were - impossibly beautiful, in an impossibly beautiful landscape, eating impossibly beautiful wild strawberries because it was all they could find and they were not enough to sustain them. Beauty can be a trap.

Strawberries are romantic partly because of their heart shape and their innate beauty and perhaps it was those things that made the Romans associate the strawberry with Venus the goddess of love. For centuries it was considered an aphrodisiac and still today it features - with chocolate - as a Valentine's Day offering, with rather more elaborate manifestations than the one shown here. A pairing made in heaven they say.

But back to the wild strawberries - fraises des bois - such a lovely name - that I too remember eating in the town hall garden in Meung-sur-Loire all those years ago. And yes the taste is quite, quite extraordinary. I couldn't describe it but I remember it still.

“Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It'll be spring soon. And the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they'll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields... and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

At this stage in my 'research' I found Jane Grigson and her Fruit Book. She always writes well in her chapter introductions but she outdoes herself on strawberries, so forgive me for the lengthy quotes that follow. And I learnt a lot too. First of all, just a nice introduction:

"Do you remember the kind and beautiful girl in Grimm's fairy tales, who is driven out by her stepmother to find strawberries in the snow? How she comes to the dwarves' house, and shares her crust of bread with them? And how, as she sweeps the snow aside with their broom, she finds growing there - strawberries? That vivid image of delight, of fruit and snow against forest darkness, is never forgotten. It's our northern winter longing for summer, a joy of the mind. And yet, in the sudden snow of winter a couple of years ago, I went to sweep our doorway - and found strawberries."

Not, of course, real strawberries but a postcard from Paris with a photograph of those Chardin strawberries which were currently starring in a Chardin exhibition there. Which is sort of irrelevant but so apt.

More relevant is her lengthy account of how we came to have the modern strawberry.

"By comparison [to the wild strawberry - the Hautbois] the modern strawberry may seem brash. But this is not fair. It's a different fruit with different virtues. And if you enjoy the thought of arduous travel and the richness of continents reduced to one small delight, you will like its extraordinary tale."

For the wild strawberry - native to Europe - could not be improved other than to make it grow a little larger. The British ones are even smaller and often dry and seedy. You can grow them in your garden and there doubtless are specialist growers, for their taste is something else. But it is quite a different plant to the modern strawberry which has different origins.

Early settlers in Virginia found a bright red wild strawberry whose taste was better than the British but not as good as the European. Nevertheless it was brought from America in the hope of creating a hybrid combining the best of both worlds. Alas this was not possible because its genetic makeup was different. Then in 1712:

"a French naval officer called Frézier - which sounds just right, [the French for strawberry is fraise] though it is spelled differently - managed to bring back to Brest five plants of a large fruiting, yellowish pale strawberry, tasting a little of pineapple, that he had found on the west coast of South America: the Chilean pine or sand strawberry."

It was larger but it didn't produce much fruit and it didn't taste that good. However, eventually the botanist Duchesne realised that he could cross these two American strawberries - from Virginia and Chile, "separated by mountain and desert in their own country" and finally in 1821 the first modern strawberry hit the market. Since then the hybridisation has continued so that when Jane Grigson wrote about this in 1982 there were 153 varieties. Many more now I'm sure - including a snow - no several - white coloured - strawberries I see.

They're supposed to be easy to grow, but I have never managed it, either in the ground or a pot. My mother used to grow them and I loved the way they sent out shoots from which sprang another plant. Then you cut the shoots between the plants and replanted them. We had to net them though or they got eaten by something, although sadly once a hedgehog got caught in the net and I think strangled itself. They say they like the sun, but there is obviously just too much of that here.

So there you go - strawberries. Rush to your local supermarket and buy up big to help our farmers and get making jam, granita, cakes, crumbles and smoothies. Or just eat them with cream and something crunchy or drop them in your favourite glass of bubbly or make a daiquiri cocktail.

I know we can get them year round now, thanks to air transport (once picked they do not continue ripening - just decaying), and modern greenhouses. But they are still a reminder of summers past and summers to come - even if you are eating them in winter in the snow.

"a joy of the mind."



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