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Very berry, Strawberry

Why do fresh strawberries often taste so thin and sour without added sugar? It has to do with the way we grow them in India

Vir Sanghvi

A while ago, I resisted the Macau Egg Tart, which is my preferred dessert when I go to Delhi’s The China Kitchen. Devender Bungla, the hotel’s pastry chef, suggested that I try a new dessert he had created.

It looked like a strawberry cake but of course, it was much more special than that. The chef hadn’t actually made a cake but had created a meringue that looked like a cake. As wonderful as this was, it was the strawberries he served it with that stole the show: they were sweet and delicious.

If you are fond of strawberries – and I guess most of us are – then you will know that there is something specific we think of as strawberry flavour. It is the taste you get when you spread strawberry jam on your toast. It is the flavour of strawberry ice cream. It is the distinctive component in strawberry crush or strawberry jelly.  

But I am guessing that as much as you may like strawberry flavour, you are less keen on fresh, whole strawberries. The truth is that Indian strawberries look right, have lots of that distinctive strawberry flavour, but are hard to eat on their own. When you bite into them they have a thin, sour taste that only dimly reminds you of strawberry ice cream and they do not fill your mouth with that gorgeous fruity sweetness. There are several reasons for this. The first is that not all strawberries are created equal. There are many different breeds and they don’t all taste alike. The British may have introduced the strawberry to India and turned the hill station of Mahabaleshwar into the centre of India’s strawberry cultivation. But, these days they no longer grow the same breed of strawberries in Mahabaleshwar as the Brits did a century ago.

Sometime in the 1980s, enterprising Maharashtrian farmers discovered an American breed of strawberries that gave a much higher yield. As strawberry prices were relatively stable, the farmers found that they could make lots more money by using breeds that gave them lots of strawberries.

This went on till it got to the stage where the market finally said: enough! Seven or eight years ago, there was actually a glut of strawberries and, for the first time, prices wobbled. If you lived in Mumbai, then you would be accosted at traffic lights by people offering to sell you baskets of strawberries – and you could beat them down to a price of your choosing.

The problem was that the strawberries were sour. You could only eat them if you sprinkled sugar on them and paired them with ice cream. At restaurants, they used them for desserts where vast qualities of sugar could be added and of course, the strawberries would go into fruit jams, where sugar is an important component anyway. But unless you did all of that, the bargain strawberries were hard to eat on their own.

I did a little research and discovered that high-yielding varieties of strawberries were never sweet. If a plant makes too many berries then it doesn’t have enough sugar to put into all of them. So each strawberry has much less sugar. As the yield goes down, the quality drops.

Then, there are the practical difficulties. When farmers concentrate on yield, flavour doesn’t even enter into their calculations. The priorities are resistance to disease, uniform size, appearance, ease of packing, etc.

And even these modern day concerns are secondary to a fundamental problem with the strawberry. It is what agriculturists call a non-climacteric food. Though we don’t always realise this, most fruits are picked too early and allowed to ripen after harvesting. The banana, apple or pear you buy at your local fruit walla was picked quite long ago and put into a warehouse to ripen. Often ethylene gas was used to speed the ripening process along.

This doesn’t work with strawberries. They stop ripening once you pick them from the plant and all the ethylene in the world won’t make a difference. So farmers have a choice. They can wait till the strawberries ripen fully and the flavour develops before picking them and then risk letting them spoil as they are transported across miles. Or they can pick them before they are fully ripe and send them off with undeveloped flavours and low sugars.

Guess which option they choose?

In that case, why were Bungla’s strawberries so delicious? Well, because they were not commercially grown. Shiv Jatia, who owns the Hyatt Regency Delhi where Bungla is the big patisserie guy, has his own farm on the outskirts of Delhi. He grows a flavourful breed of strawberries (not the high-yield Mahabaleshwar breed), does not pack his bushes with too many berries, lets each strawberry fully ripen before it is picked and then sends it off to the Hyatt the day it is harvested. It is a rare example of farm-to-table in a Delhi hotel and the Hyatt, very modestly, does not brag about it.

So the secret of that dessert was strawberries that had been grown to a full ripeness and served soon after picking. That combination of ripeness and freshness is hard to beat. The climate helps too. If the nights are cold, then strawberry plants will develop more sugars to put into the berries. So the best strawberries often came from North India in December to February when the weather is cool. Pleasant as their weather is, the Maharashtra hill stations just don’t have the coldness of the Delhi winter; another factor that works against their strawberries.

Admittedly, this is counter-intuitive because, all over the world, strawberries are regarded as a summer fruit. But look closely and you will find that anybody who eats strawberries in the summer, needs cream and sugar to make them tasty; the strawberry and cream rituals of Wimbledon are one such example. Strawberries are a winter fruit and taste best when the weather is cold – and you don’t need to add cream or sugar.

Then, there is the chemistry. You may or may not know this but most strawberry ice cream contains no strawberries at all. Neither does strawberry syrup or strawberry jelly.

All natural flavours are composed of chemical molecules. Some ingredients have so many flavour molecules that it is nearly impossible to recreate them in a laboratory. Chocolate, for instance, contains such a complex mixture of so many molecules that nobody has been able to invent a synthetic chocolate flavour that is at all convincing.

This is true of many fruits. Tomatoes have at least a hundred volatile chemical molecules. Scientists have tried to isolate some of them to recreate the aroma and flavour of the tomato. But because the task is so complex, they usually mix 20 to 30 molecules that most people most strongly identify as components of tomato flavour. When food companies use synthetic tomato flavour, what they are giving us is a 10th of real tomato flavour. We can smell something we identify as tomato. But if you put a synthetic tomato-flavoured product next to one with real tomatoes you can easily tell the difference.

But strawberries are not like tomatoes. Most Indians eat tomatoes in some form (in sabzi, salads or curries) nearly every day of our lives. So we have a fairly good idea of what a tomato should taste like. On the other hand, most of us will eat fresh strawberries only a few times a year.

So, it is much easier for food scientists to take the more obvious molecules that go into strawberry flavour and create synthetic strawberry flavour than it is to create synthetic tomato flavour from a handful of molecules. Marketeers have sold us the idea that strawberries should be sugary sweet. And that’s what they give us.

Consequently when most of us try and recall the taste of a strawberry it is a sugary, broad-stroke flavour that comes to mind. We hardly ever understand the complex taste of a real strawberry with its natural sugar, its juicy flesh and its slight tartness.

And when we eat mass-produced, not-yet-ripe, high-yield strawberries with loads of added sugar, we are content because the taste reminds us of strawberry ice cream and of clumpy strawberry jam made from poor quality strawberries and industrial quantities of sugar.

That’s why it was such a pleasure to eat Bungla’s strawberry dessert that day at The China Kitchen. In a world full of unripe, flavourless fruit, it is nice to sometimes eat a real strawberry and to recall what a miracle a perfect piece of fruit is.  Science can put a man on the moon. But only God can create a real strawberry.

(HT Media)

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