AT RISK – Strawberry Fields Forever

15 Jul 2003

It’s midsummer in south of Sweden and a wonderful time for families and people to get together, enjoy themselves, and eat and drink. If the weather permits, almost everybody sits out in gardens and parks or on the beach. And the days are long. The sun is under the horizon for just four-five hours and in the northern parts of Sweden it shines all day and night—24 hours.

This is a perfect time for midsummer-parties with lots of food. The midsummer-table offers pickled herring in hundreds of variations, smoked salmon, new potatoes with dill, eggs, cheese, onions, tomatoes and freshly baked dark bread.

With this delicious food we drink cold beer and the necessary ice-cold aquavit.

After some hours the traditional dessert is served and it’s a great moment for many of us. Fresh newly picked strawberries. This mouthwatering berry is often eaten with cream or milk and if it is of the traditional kind, such as Corona or Sephyr you don’t need to add sugar, because it’s full of natural sweetness.

Sadly these old sweet strawberries are threatened. They are in danger of being forgotten.

Large strawberry growers and the largest wholesalers in Sweden have decisive decided that we should eat another variety called Honeoya. In fact over 80 percent of all strawberries grown in Sweden are of the Honeoya-type. This kind of strawberry is very convenient for the growers, for wholesalers and the supermarkets because it looks very nice, a beautiful dark red in color, and easy to grow and pick. This strawberry is producing berries longer and is also very suitable for transportation and handling. But sadly this berry has very little taste. It doesn’t have the sweetness ov the others mentioned.

When I was speaking to some strawberry experts about this dilemma, they told me that, from their point of view, taste is not that important. They also told me that the Honeoya plant is more sensitive to low temperatures. Anyone who has visited Scandinavian latitudes knows that the summers can be very warm and sometimes very cold, cloudy and windy. This spring was cold and windy and as a consequence 80 percent of all strawberries weren’t mellow for the midsummer. In view of the predominance of the Honeoya, many of the plants were even frozen. The consequence of the simple logic of the so-called experts is that Sweden this year has to import 50 percent of its strawberries, while growers still concentrate to produce good-looking berries, which are easy to pick and handle, but taste of hardly anything.

Sadly, the Honeoya strawberry is the kind that hundreds and thousands of Swedes buy to serve at their midsummer-parties. Will their children know and remember what real strawberries taste like?

The standardization of taste in Sweden is a problem that depends largely on the three gigantic food companies that controls virtually all cooperatives, chain stores, growers and producers. Practically all the shops are streamlined in their offerings, and small-scale producers have very little chance to sell their unique products, because wholesalers often don’t believe in these products. Albeit outstanding, the latter often mismatch with the wholesalers’ rationalized and cost-efficient strategy, but no one asks what we consumers really would like to eat.

Fortunately, small farmers in the country still grow the sweet traditional strawberry. In the summertime they often advertise for self-picking, which allows anyone to pick their own berries at a small cost. It is also possible to pick corn, carrots, onions, beetroots and raspberries in the same way.

But the sweet traditional strawberry is more difficult to pick and it has be eaten soon, otherwise it loses its freshness and extraordinary taste. This is why the fields where it is grown must be remembered and not forgotten.

Bengt Danebring is a member of the board of the Slow Food Scania Convivium in Sweden

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