Stephen Jardine: Arrival of strawberries is sweetest of times

The Scottish soft fruit is much better than the imported variety, writes Stephen Jardine

Spanish strawberries travel more than a thousand miles to satisfy our demand for seasonal fruit out of season. Picture: PA

Let summer officially begin. Shorts have been in the shops since Easter but there is a much more reliable indicator that the sunshine season is here and that is the arrival of the wonderful Scottish strawberry.

Nowadays soft fruits are available all year thanks to supermarket imports from Spain and Morocco but we all know they don’t taste anything like proper seasonal berries. Eating a strawberry in January is like having a sunbed to get a tan, it may look the same but the genuine experience is very different.

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Imported fruit also comes at a price. The temperature control required on the journey leaves many imported strawberries tasting of nothing except cotton wool. The look is right, the texture is correct but the flavour is non-existent. And there are the environmental concerns. Spanish strawberries travel more than a thousand miles to satisfy our demand for seasonal fruit out of season.

That’s what makes the start of the Scottish strawberry season such a special time. A few years ago I spent 12 months eating only Scottish produce as an experiment for a TV programme. The winter months were long and I craved sweet tasting berries more than anything else. So when someone offered me a sample of the first Scottish strawberries at a food event in May, I started eating and couldn’t stop.

It’s that time again now. At a farm shop in Perthshire last week a big chalked sign next to a mountain of punnets said: “They are here”. Nothing more was required.

When I lived in France, the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau every November was a very big deal. Shops and restaurants put out the bunting and arranged special tastings. So why don’t we treat Scottish strawberries the same way? We should have much more pride in this delicious soft fruit which loves the Scottish soil so much. And don’t underestimate the economic impact of the strawberry.

During Wimbledon last year Marks and Spencer sold 20 million strawberries in seven days. For Sainsbury’s, strawberries are the No.1 best selling produce right across the summer months.

But supermarket strawberries can’t compete with farm shops or pick-your-own. The problem is that supermarket berries are picked days before they are ripe and then held and transported in temperature controlled conditions. Try the smell test. When was the last time you detected a sweet aroma from plastic wrapped supermarket strawberries?

Buy from the fruit and vegetable store, farmers market or roadside shop and you will enjoy a completely different experience. The berries may not all be uniform size and shape but they will taste terrific. For Scottish growers, these are interesting times. But foreign producers are hungry for an increasing share of the market. To fight off foreign imports would mean extending the domestic strawberry season longer and longer, using heated polytunnels and artificial lighting to keep us supplied. It would produce jobs and help the local economy, but something special would be lost. That moment when the sun shines, you taste your first Scottish strawberry and realise, summer is here.