Monday, April 13, 2009

Strawberry Festival

In mid-March our fruit vendor began promising “local strawberries soon.” The ones on offer thus far had been Spanish. It turns out that the general area hereabouts, the Comtat Venaissin, is a sort of strawberry fields forever. Well, not forever. It’s only been since the late 19th century, and it only lasts for a brief time in early Spring. Before the late 1800s, silk worms and a red-dye producing plant, garance in French and “madder” in English, were major agricultural enterprises. (The red coats of British soldiers fighting in the American revolution were colored with a madder-produced dye). With the rise of synthetic substitutes, the need for silkworms and madder dropped significantly. What to do? Someone thought of planting strawberries. The area now supplies about 4% of French consumption.

The berries produce early. They have varietal names like garriguette, ciflorette, pajaro, (the “Carpentras Strawberry,”) and nayad. Nature is typically loaded with such diversity. It seems to disdain single versions of anything. This problem of the “one and the many” has occupied thinkers for a long time. Plato formulated the issue in his “theory of Forms.” There are many varieties (of strawberries, grapes, apples etc.). We can still identify them as part of single families. They are many yet they are one. The only way Plato could express this was to say that it seemed as if there were a “Form” for each family. That template then served as the model for individuals who exemplify it in various ways. None of the instantiations match the blueprint perfectly, an impossible feat since the Form contains all of what differentiates each variety from the next.
When it comes to judging quality, we often make a similar move, but this time identifying one variety as the ideal. We, who live normally in upstate New York, tend toward the wild strawberry that grows in the Adirondack mountains as our exemplar. It is low to the ground, small, red, full of juice with a special sweetness. This Adirondack strawberry has practically nothing in common with its gigantic, much dryer, much less flavorful, cousin found on supermarket shelves in February.

If we refer to the Adirondack Strawberry as “A” and the February grocery store one as “F,” then we have a sort of quality continuum. Where do the Comtat Venaissin strawberries fall? Thus far, the variety we have sampled, ciflorette, rates a sort of B/B+. The berries are full of natural sugars and have a texture and ripeness that move them close to “A.” Some are quite large, have a crown that is white, and a kind of empty center when opened. These traits all tug toward “F.” Not too far along this way, but enough to keep them one step removed from the Adirondack exemplar.
We got our first real taste of the local produce last Saturday when nearby Carpentras held its annual Fête de la Fraise. The previous week, asking about the festival, we had been told “Oh there are booths all around town.” The actual festival turned out to be one rectangular set of tables. Staffing the tables were various vendors and exhibitors. Strawberries abounded. There were also wines, candies, chocolates, syrups and preserves. A flowing fountain of warm chocolate was available for dipping. Strangely, when the exhibitor running the fountain handed out chocolate covered goodies, it was marshmallows, not strawberries, that he favored.

The Fête began with a ceremony during which two important guilds, that of strawberries and that of wine, held a joint event. They celebrated the “marriage” of local berries with local rosés. This was a colorful event. Participants were dressed in fruit-appropriate red and green. The afternoon was marked by a demonstration on how candied strawberries are made, samplings of crêpes, pastries, candies and the chocolate fountain. The “swinging uncles” (les tontons swingueurs) provided dixieland jazz accompaniment. One tall creature, (the “good fairy”?) circulated, waving her strawberry wand to bring good wishes and good luck to those assembled.

The stars of what is after all a marketing event were the fruits themselves. If there is a Platonic Form for strawberry one of its definite components is flavor. Indeed, the French name “fraise” is a cognate of “fragrance.” That’s lovely and it leaves an English speaker with the question: How does straw figure in the Form of this fruit?

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