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Strawberries growing in the wild are gems of mouth-watering delight that bear little relation to the showy, insipid-tasting fruit on supermarket shelves. But there are still good garden strawberries to be found. Berrin Torolsan encourages us to seek out locally grown, seasonal fruit bursting with fragrance. Her simple recipes celebrate the best of berries
One spring day in the Belgrade Forest, to the north of Istanbul, we discovered a hillside covered in tiny strawberries. They were too tempting. We plucked three or four plants, along with the roots, and replanted them in our small garden on the European shore of the Bosphorus. For almost a decade they have multiplied, invading the garden like a weed, alongside the sweet violets I transplanted from the same woods. They are quite independent, thriving undisturbed under the roses. The first minuscule white blooms of May are transformed within 30 days into tiny red berries with an agreeable, fleeting aroma. Snails nibble at them constantly, and visiting birds and children like to snack on them.
A member of the extensive rose family, wild strawberries are part of Istanbul’s landscape. But they are also widespread across Turkey and the old Ottoman Balkans. According to the monumental Flora of Turkey, the life’s work of the botanist Peter Davis, two different species of wild strawberry grow in profusion all over Thrace and Anatolia: Fragaria vesca and Fragaria viridis.
This reminds me of a story my uncle told me. In the Second World War, when he was an artillery officer serving in Sankamış, near Kars on the Russian border, he went riding one foggy morning in the vicinity of the camp, which was at 2,000 metres. When he reached a plain above the camp, he was alarmed to see that his horse’s legs seemed to be covered in blood. He quickly dismounted and was amazed to find that the ground was a mass of strawberries and his horse was not injured at all. His men enjoyed eating their fill of the fruit for days.
The French diplomat, physician and traveller François Pouqueville, who was part of Napoleon’s 1798 expedition to Egypt and was captured by pirates, heaped praise on the strawberry sherbet he was offered in Ottoman Morea (modern Peloponnese). A century and a half earlier, another indefatigable traveller, Evliya Çelebi, was near Ohrid, in the Balkans, as a guest of the local notable, Ohrizade Bey. He recalled that he and his host had a wonderful time feasting on wild strawberries. And on his way to Budin, in modern-day Hungary, Çelebi found fertile valleys carpeted with strawberries the size of hazelnuts.
Wild strawberries - known in Turkish as dag çileği (mountain strawberries) - grow in abundance over a wide territory. An exiled Uighur lady from Turfan in Central Asia recently told me that, to this day, strawberries are not cultivated in her homeland; basketfuls are gathered in the mountains by children and shepherds and brought down to market. In Turkey, fragrant wild strawberries from the Bolu Mountains and Uludağ, above Bursa, are sold by village boys all along the roadside. …
“Oh those Arnavutköy strawberries… their scent used to waft to the other shore as far as Vaniköy,” Iffet Evin writes in The Bosphorus That I Lived On (1987). She recalls as a child waking early in the morning to the scent of strawberries and the cry of strawberry sellers as they rowed across the Bosphorus to sell their fruit on the Asian side…
ÇiLEK KOMPOSTOSU STRAWBERRY COMPOTE
2 glasses water
Half glass sugar
This is the best way to turn leftover strawberries - including unripe, tart or insipid ones - into a refreshing compote. The method is simplicity itself.
1 Rinse the strawberries, hull and set aside to drain.
2 Bring the water and sugar to the boil in a deep pan. When all the sugar has dissolved and the syrup has started to bubble, turn off the heat. Add the strawberries to the hot syrup. Cover with a lid and set aside to cool.
3 Before serving, check for sweetness, adding water if it is too sweet for your taste. Serve chilled.
More recipes in this article: Strawberry Sorbet (Çilekli Dondurma); Stawberry Jelly (Çilek Peltesi); Strawberry Jam (Çilek Reçeli); Strawberry Parfait; Strawberry Cream (Çilekli Krem); Simple Stawberry Cake (Çilekli Kolay Kek); Strawberry Liqueur.
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