What do we really know about this delicious berry? Well, it isn’t even a berry but a completely separate fruit of its own from the rose family. Where does it come from? Did ancient strawberries look like the modern strawberry?
First, strawberries have been around for nearly 2200 years! But would we recognize it? Yes, the cultivar the ancient Romans were using is still around. It’s called Fragaria vesca. You’d know them as Alpine strawberries or Woodland strawberries. They’re native to the Northern hemisphere of Europe.
Ancient Roman medicine
You may have seen little Alpine strawberries at the farmer’s market. They’re small and sweet and exceptionally fragrant. Ancient Romans were using the plant’s leaves for medicinal purposes, which are edible if you’ve ever wanted to chuck leafy one whole into a smoothie. They believed they could cure everything from melancholy to kidney stones. I don’t know about kidney stones, but I do know sweet strawberries can brighten anyone’s mood… unless you’re allergic.
Before modern botany, strawberries were grown from the plants that sprout off their runners. What could look like many plants may actually be one big plant? Hence the name strawberry patch. However, it was reported that Charles V (1364 - 1380AD) had nearly 1200 strawberry plants transplanted into his garden! That’s a lot of digging in the woods. Thank God for peasants.
Medieval peppered strawberries
As strawberries picked popularity, so did their uses. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that the fruit should be eaten hot. Most likely they would have been boiled or stewed with strong spices such as clove and… pepper. Apparently, this was typical of the time. Most luxury desserts included strong spices. Peasant food was bland; rich food was spicy.
Strawberry bath with Napoleon
Again, still seen as a food for the rich and royal, strawberries began to take on the air of an icon. Supposedly Madame Tallien, a noted face at Emperor Napoleon’s court, liked to bath in strawberry juice. It took 22 pounds to make enough for a bath. Even by today’s standard, that’s a pricy bath. Perhaps we should say, “Let them drink my bath water,” instead of, “Let them eat cake.”