I had my first experience with wild strawberries when I was about 12 years old. On a summer trip to New York, I used to go out to Quogue, on Long Island and spend weekends in a quaint old renovated gardenerâ€™s cottage on a fantastic six acre lot that had old huge oak trees, rhododendron bushes, wild cottontail rabbits and a wooded trail down to an inlet. Quogue was, and still is, one of the quieter â€œHamptonsâ€ and at that time still felt very much like you were in the â€œcountry.â€ I used to help tend a small summer vegetable patch there, shuck corn on the wooden deck, watch the skirt steak grilling on the small Japanese Hibachi and even planted a small pine seedling several inches tall that has since grown to a classically shaped and beautiful (blue spruce?) Christmas Tree. My brother-in-law would occasionally take us traipsing through the â€œwoodsâ€ and by the roadsides where he would push some of the low ground cover searching for somethingâ€¦ then one day, like a page in a book would read, he spotted these tiny little berries, bright red and well, looking like miniature strawberries. They were wild strawberries, in fact, and they are native to both North America and a cousin native to Europe and Asia in the temperate regions. The ones we used to pick were 1/3 of the size of the ones pictures here.
We used to pop these into our mouths and you would get the most incredible burst of strawberry flavor you have EVER had. At age twelve, you worry about mud, muck, deer or dog poop, so eating these without washing them was a bit odd at first, but after the first berry I ended up eating nearly every single one we found! It was a back breaking and negative calorie effort as the berries were so incredibly tiny and so much work to find and harvest. At most you could hoard a palm-full of them. But oddly, I donâ€™t think I will ever forget the experience of discovering, picking and eating these absolutely stunning fruits. And every year I returned to Quogue, I looked forward to that one or two weekends where we might find those wild strawberries. Fast forward to Paris nearly 25 years later and I am in a large gourmet store with my 7 year old daughter and what should we see but a nice little punnet of wild fraise de bois or â€œforest strawberries!â€ We bought two punnets, headed out to the nearby park and found a bench and consumed most of them without even washing them. Not quite the same as picking them yourselves but the moment was forever etched in my daughterâ€™s mind as well, as she has an excited reaction whenever we come across these fantastic berries.
So thatâ€™s a long introduction to the fact the wild strawberries were in season BIG TIME on our recent trip to Spain and Italy. We bought them frequently (my daughter shunned the larger cultivated berries, buying her own stash of “wild” ones that she guarded in the fridge like gold) and had them plain, mixed with other fruit or enjoyed with a nice thick cream. Wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca) are also known as Reina de los Valles in Spanish, I think. When I first got a whiff of them in Barcelona, they would disappear from the vendors stalls almost instantlyâ€¦ so one morning I went to the market early and waited as the delivery trucks unloaded their goods. I pounced on a whole box with perhaps 10 little containers of the berries and took a photograph. I tried to buy one or two little containers but the guy said they were already sold, or if I wanted a whole box he could sneak one from the truckâ€¦ I did the next best thing and physically followed him to the stall he sold the box to THEN I bought two little containers already marked up to their outrageous retail prices. Whatever the price, as long as they are fresh, these jewels are worth it!