Sunday, November 22, 2009

Tui, Cathedral and Strawberries

Yesterday I was delighted as a tui settled in the abutilon, the long tongue seeking nectar in the flowers. The bird’s balance was amazing. It was so close that the sheen of its feathers was striking and as usual that tuft of white feathers at the throat was eye-catching. No wonder the early English settlers called it the parson bird.

The site for last night’s Antiques Roadshow was Wells Cathedral. Anne and I visited it in 1994 while holidaying around England, indeed we went to evensong. We’d spent the day exploring the Somerset countryside but I wished we’d gone to the cathedral earlier – it’s very unique. And very old. Built mainly between 1184 and 1239 it has survived remarkably well. The vista on the west side is striking – from a distance the medieval figures merge into a symetric symphony. White swans on the moat around the Bishop’s palace added the final touch. In the transept is an astronomical clock – in the 19th century the old machinery was replaced, but the medieval face was retained. The dial presents a geocentric view of the universe, the sun and moon circling around the earth.

The white strawberries we brought with us are being choked out by the violets I planted when we arrived. There’s history in these strawberries. When we arrived at Farm Rd there was a little group of what I thought were small mountain strawberries. I’d seen them in the fields in the French massif. But I kept waiting for the white fruit to ripen. They didn’t. But self-sown strawberries kept appearing all round the section. Then one day mother-in-law pointed out that they were supposed to be eaten white. They were a different breed from the one that I thought they were. Ripe, they were delectable – even more strawberry flavoured than strawberries. For several years we’d been missing out on this luxury. After that we enjoyed this taste every summer. The ones in the veggie patch grew well on the ample amount of sheep manure I’d dug in.

Strawberries are members of the rose family. Archaeology shows pre-historic people ate wild strawberries. They were not an important food – collection would have been too laborious. The Romans didn’t cultivate them though Virgil warned of the danger of children searching for them in the fields because of adders and Ovid has a love-sick swain offering a small cottage beside which his beloved can “gather the soft strawberries growing beneath the woodland shade.”

Strawberries were cultivated and traded in Chile and Peru before the Spanish explorers arrived. We don’t know for how long, but it was probably before it began in Europe. Certainly, it was not till the 1300’s that the French began cultivating the little woodland strawberry, much smaller than its South American counterpart. The English followed suit. In I534 Henry VIII’s expense list has ten shillings for a pottle of strawberries. Thomas Tusser in his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, (1557) wrote under the month September
Wife, into the garden and set me a plot
With strawberry roots, the best to be got:
Such growing abroad among thorns in the wood,
Well chosen and picked, prove excellent good.

Early in the 17th century F. virginiana was introduced into Europe from North East America. They were much larger berries than the European ones. Indeed the Indians grew them and used them in many dishes including mixing them with meale to make strawberry bread. It was not till the 19th century that the white settlers there began cultivating them, they were so plentiful in the wild. In early 18th century another strawberry breed was introduced into Europe from Chile. The hybridisation of these two American berries formed the basis of today’s modern, big-fruited strawberry. I eat bigger, tastier strawberries than Henry V111 did thanks to French horticulturalists and their successors.

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