It’s the height of the short Swedish strawberry season and the berries are out en masse. When the Lönnslätts Bär strawberry pods are plopped down around my city I know summer is officially here despite the fact it might only be 55°F (13°C) and raining. I love passing by my neighborhood pod where if the wind is just right you get the treat of being enveloped in the sweet aroma of freshly picked strawberries.
Fresh strawberries are in my top three favorite foods along with peaches from my home state of Utah and Island Creek Oysters on-the-half-shell from Duxbury, MA, so I awaited my first Swedish strawberry season with great anticipation. Unfortunately I found it to be underwhelming for all the hype. I just didn’t see what all the fuss was about. They looked lovely, yes, had a nice shape, and petite size, but eh. I wasn’t too impressed. Then my second strawberry season rolled around and my sister-in-law presented us with some berries from Flädie. They were so candy-sweet, succulent, and ideally bite-sized that I was enlightened to the perfection that can be the Swedish strawberry.
Swedes take their jordgubbar (YOHRD-goo-burr) very seriously despite the fact that jordgubbar literally means “earth men” (gubbar is an endearing term for an old man). Swedish strawberries are a big part of the summer culture with an annual harvest of around 15 000 000 kg (16, 524 tons). That accounts for 3-4 liters per person in Sweden (this semiswede has certainly already eaten her fair share and has no plans to slow down). Imports are not looked upon favorably although Belgian strawberries seem to be an acceptable distant second in a pinch. If you serve strawberries or bring them to someone as a gift, you should not be surprised if you are asked, “Are they Swedish?” Swedish strawberries start out pretty spendy with their first appearance being around $7 (45 sek) a pint and then they drop down to around $4.75 (30 sek). They play a significant role at Midsummer celebrations where they are typically served whole for dessert with milk and sugar. Picking your own berries used to be a summer tradition for many families and accounted for 50% of sales 15 years ago but today are only 20% of sales. My kids love to visit the strawberry fields and seek out the ripe berries hiding under the leaves. Perhaps they have inherited my berry picking addiction. We do our part to keep those “you-pick” numbers up.
In May of this year the Swedish berry council endorsed a survey of 1015 Swedes about strawberries. Here are highlights of the results:
96% of Swedes like strawberries (women a little more so than men)
84% think it’s important the strawberries they buy are Swedish
1 in 4 won’t buy any strawberries unless they are Swedish
45% prefer their strawberries with milk and sugar while 45% prefer ice cream
85% want to know where the berries came from
Strawberry plants are particularly sensitive to environmental change, so the long bright Swedish summer days and cool nights purportedly make the berries sweet and flavorful. The first ripe berries begin to show up at the end of May in the southern part of the country and early September in the far north. They are even farmed above the Arctic Circle but the majority of Swedish strawberries come from the southern Skåne region around Blekinge and Kalmar. Honeoye is typical among the early varieties and happens to be the variety of the ruby gems I have been savoring from Lönnslätts Bär. Zefyr is another early variety with Korona, Polka and Sengana showing up mid-season. The usual late varieties are Dania and Bounty.
In my search for information about Swedish strawberries I found a portion of the Swedish berry council’s website where sommelier Mischa Billing describes some of the more common Swedish strawberry varieties. I found the concept of describing strawberries in the same way as fine wines intriguing and throughly enjoyed reading the descriptions. They are in Swedish but you can copy and paste them into Google Translate if you would like to read them. A translation of her impressions of the honeoye variety is a “generous, grand, and perfumed aroma. The berry is ripe with lime, black cherry, and wild strawberry. The sweetness is intense with an ounce of soil and cold tea. Soft and flowing juicy berries with well-integrated freshness.”
I’m not going to argue with that.
Strawberries are part of the Rose Family and today there are around 600 varieties that have been derived from five or six original wild species. They are high in vitamin C and fiber, rich in antioxidants, and a good source of folate and iron. According to the Swedish berry council, fresh strawberries should be stored unwashed in the refrigerator. Only wash them if there is visible dirt and serve them at room temperature for the fullest flavor. Once the stem has been removed they should be eaten immediately or frozen. When freezing them they should be sliced and lightly sugared. A tip for de-stemming that I learned from my mother-in-law is to use a small coffee spoon to scoop out the top. Works beautifully.
Swedish strawberries are something special and as long as the pods are in place I’ll be frequenting them and looking forward to getting a little you-pick action as soon as possible. Like many of the foods that are ingrained in Swedish culture, strawberries are a seasonal treat. They announce the long-awaited arrival of summer and generate an excitement and pride that is notable. The season is short and I’ll be making sure I saturate my system before it is over. Preferably with the addition of a little sugar and cream (or you can try my sister-in-law’s Minted Strawberry recipe). The only challenge is that I have to eat quickly otherwise my four year old will outdo me in the consumption department. Thankfully she prefers that I de-stem them so I can control the flow a bit. I will not be teaching her the spoon trick just yet or I’ll be sunk.