They were never my favourite as a child. Strawberries. I found them too big, too perfectly red, too shiny. They were a sweetness that almost tipped into sour and every one was an explosion, the mouth filling with the same water that was used earlier in the year to force the first beside-the-road flush.
I ate them nonetheless. In the car on the way home, having stopped at the beside-the-road shop to pick up spuds and “strawbs” seasoned by the exhausted motorway. The challenge was to not eat them all in one go. Strawberry belly aches were real. A friend spontaneously developed a strawberry allergy after a particularly large strawberry binge. It must be noted that ice-cream was the method of conveyance of fruit to mouth.
Once the calendar had entered the time we call Summer, strawberries suddenly appeared everywhere. They were THE dessert for months. In the beginning they needed the sprinkling of sugar to mask the acidity and the blandness from forcing. As the summer rolled on, the sugar became a habit and a temporary tradition that would be “rude to break”. At some houses cream appeared. The house was fancy if the cream was whipped.
As I grew older and learn to drive, I did not stop when the white sign with red, hand-painted letters appeared. Now I prefer rice to spuds and raspberries to strawberries. August is my berry month, not June.
One evening in June of some year, a friend and I go for dinner. In fact, dessert. We order a chocolate pudding and a strawberry tart. I have never before tasted a strawberry tart. This dessert stirs the pot of memory in my friend and she marks it as a recipe directly linked to her childhood. Strawberry tarts! My mind reels, both because of the impossibility of having survived unscathed the strawberry gorging of childhood and because of the presence of home-made tarts in a family household. We were a crumble home, I acknowledge to myself.
In the restaurant, having analysed my reeling, I break the crust and taste the tart. Looking to my friend she describes the strawberry tart of her youth: a soft pastry shell housing a mound of creme patisserie covered by a dome of sliced strawberries, themselves preserved in a clear film of jelly glaze. Our contender before us that evening is bald and brash by comparison, quartered strawberries prostrated on exposed pastry with only a hint of caramelised sugar to uphold their modesty. Or hide their modesty?
Perhaps that’s it. To me, strawberries are not sexy. Strawberries do not light my fire nor get any part of me wet. If anything, when a chocolate strawberry is presented to me followed swiftly by the Chantilly cream-in-a-can (a situation which has never happened IRL), what comes to mind is not “come-hither, come here to me now”, but images of large plastic greenhouses with closely planted rows and intensive irrigation systems located in rural areas of southern Spain and Poland. Not necessarily a turn-off for everyone but certainly not a turn-on for me.
Why are other summer fruits, grown in a similar way, any different in their role as aphrodisiac? Perhaps it is because, in my eyes, strawberries are too perfect. We have bred them beyond themselves. They are impossible, meet every aesthetic criteria for every shop shelf, and are too far from their tiny, sour alpine ancestor to elicit lust. I may as well be propositioned by a plate or a bicycle wheel, two other very non-consumable, very manmade objects.
However, recently I recognised that I may be too harsh in my berry judgement. As an effort of reconciliation, I sat on a couch one day in some year and ate one, eyes closed (out of respect). It tasted cool, tingled my tongue and sweetness blended to slight sourness from the centre outwards. If it were to be a colour, it would be light blue. Opening my eyes, sitting on my couch in the middle of the day (perhaps it was the weekend), I noted that the strawberry does not in fact taste at all how it looks. It is refreshing, light, lifting. One could guess that it became a symbol of love thanks to its heart-shaped form not its flavour. Strawberries and dark chocolate are meant to be consumed by the eyes, not the mouth. My test complete, I feel my anti-strawberry wall built from years of strawberry aversion crumbling, with one caveat. Strawberries for breakfast, not for after-hours. And only in the Summer.