• Strawberries weren't originally the colour you think they might have been. (Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias (Chile))Source: Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias (Chile)
There's a push to see white Chilean strawberries return as a symbol of Indigenous cuisine and culture.
Dominic Ryan

26 Apr 2021 - 1:05 PM  UPDATED 27 Apr 2021 - 5:12 PM

"Tastes like strawberries, on a summer evening," sings the Century's eminent heartthrob Harry Styles in his produce-inspired hit song Watermelon Sugar. "I want more berries," he chants, then proceeds to devour slice after slice of watermelon. Clearly, Mr Styles has a penchant for deep-red fruits. Or does he? 

Styles, like most, would perhaps be aghast to learn that strawberries are not in fact berries due to some strict definitions. But watermelons are, so it seems he still got his wish. And before you get bogged down on that one, here's another fact: strawberries were once white (and some were even yellow). Boom!

'How now?' you ask. It involves wild plants in southern Chile, a long boat ride to Brittany, and a French garden.

"The modern strawberry emerged in Brest, France, in 1766," Cecilia Céspedes tells SBS Food. She works as an agroecological researcher for the Chilean government agency INIA.

While France is where the strawberry was cultivated, it's not where it originated. "It was a cross of fragaria virginiana from the United States with fragaria chiloensis [from Chile], which is why it's known as 'F. chiloensis x F. virginiana'," Céspedes explains.

It was this latter variety from South America that really shakes things up, since it was white.

Chile’s white strawberry would be cross cultivated with the North American variety to form the fruit we eat today.

The Spaniards, in their exploration and conquest of Chile, wrote extensively of this incredible fruit they saw cultivating abundantly. They commented on its intense aroma, large size, and off-white hue, and considered it to be far superior to the strawberry variety they had back home. They also came across yellow-tinted varieties and were amazed at the sheer abundance of them.

They were so captivated that one Frenchman decided to take five of the white fruits with him back to Europe — no easy task given the length of such a journey.

"He gave two to the captain of the boat in exchange for the freshwater needed to water the strawberries, one to a minister and one to a professor to plant in France and the final one he left in the port of Brest," Céspedes says.

It was there that Chile's white strawberry would be cross-cultivated with the North American variety to form the strawberry we know today, consumed and venerated world-over — not just by British pop stars.

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While it makes for a great story, the odyssey of those five strawberries in 1714 inadvertently led to the demise of the white strawberry in Chile, as the red type was commercialised. Before this, the white ones were eaten widely by the Indigenous Mapuche people long before the arrival of Europeans and are today considered a strong symbol of culture and heritage. They also taste better. 

"The fruit of fragaria chiloensis stands out for its great sweetness and aroma compared to the commercial strawberry," Céspedes says.

Even though one would be very hard pressed to find them on the shelf of a Chilean supermarket, Indigenous groups, particularly from the Nahuelbuta territory in the south, work to keep their precious strawberries growing.

The local municipality of Contulmo puts on a White Strawberry Festival every year to promote white strawberry cultivation, consumption and culture. Céspedes authored a report titled Rescue and valuation of the white strawberry with support from the Chilean government to raise awareness of its scarcity.

The white Chilean strawberry is a symbol of Indigenous cuisine and culture.

For the growers, farming these strawberries is a labour of love. "Despite low yields owing to climate change, exploitation of the lands and water shortages, farmers continue their cultivation", she explains.

Although a kilo of red strawberries sells for $1.90, their white predecessors go for upwards of $45. Despite this, there's hope that Chile's love for berries will help create a boutique market for the endemic Chilean fruit.

"In Chile, you can find strawberries in all sorts of food and drinks," explains Daniela Prado Frugone, a Chilean masseuse who has lived in Australia for seven years. "[There are] many strawberry desserts we enjoy in Chile, like strawberry kuchen (cakes introduced to Chile by German migrants), marmalades, cheesecakes and bavarois."

"Being originally from central Chile and having lived in different countries, I must say Chilean strawberries are the best in the world."

Traditional white strawberry recipes also continue to be popular. "The farmers in Nahuelbuta prepare strawberries with toasted corn flour as well as strawberry juices," says Céspedes. The popular 'borgoña', a strawberry-infused wine cocktail, has become a national drink and is commonplace during celebrations on Chile's national day.

"Strawberries are one of the most popular fruits in the world, and in Chile this is no exception," says Prado. "Being originally from central Chile and having lived in different countries, I must say Chilean strawberries are the best in the world. For me, they are the sweetest and the most delicious."

The land lends itself to bountiful production of the fruit, helping make it a popular snack and addition to dishes.

With an insatiable appetite, optimal growing conditions and a strong list of strawberry dishes, the scope for popularising the white strawberry again is promising.

Perhaps even Harry Styles would be happy to lend a hand.

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