Time was that strawberries were a rare treat, tiny bursts of flavor gathered in the forests when the conditions were right. And the best strawberries still are, in my opinion, the wild ones you occasionally come across as you hike in the woods. Problem is, they're so good the chances are you'll eat them on the spot.
Fortunately for us, commercial growers have managed to develop varieties that can be raised. In Italy one of the most famous places for strawberries is Lago di Nemi, a crater lake in the Alban Hills overlooking Rome; the crater walls capture the warmth of the sun and because the crater rim is unbroken the basin is shielded from cool winds. They have a wonderful festival in June (on weekends), and if you ever visit Rome at that time of year you should definitely go; the lake has also yielded a spectacular Roman boat and has a naval museum. Unfortunately, Nemi's strawberries mostly end up in Rome.
When you buy strawberries the standard cautions apply. The berries should be a vibrant, shiny scarlet and blemish free. If the tips are paler, or green, the berries are probably not ripe and could be tasteless. The berries should also look firm. If their color is dull and flat, or if they look dry and deflated, they may well be old. If you're buying a plastic vat of strawberries turn it over to check the berries underneath as well, because they easily become moldy. As a final check, sniff your strawberries: a heady rush of strawberry aromas should greet you. If you it does not, the chances are that the strawberries won't taste of much no matter how good they look.
When you get them home store them in the refrigerator; they'll keep a couple of days. De Agostini's La Mia Cucina suggest you not wash them unless it's absolutely necessary, but rather wipe them with a soft cloth to clean them. If the strawberries are untreated this is good advice, but I would hesitate to eat those that have been treated without a good rinsing.
What to do with them?
The traditional Italian method for serving strawberries is with wine, fragole al vino: hull them, quarter them lengthwise, sprinkle them with wine, dust them with a little sugar, then put them in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. The wine of choice is red (Chianti) in Tuscany, but Faith Willinger notes that areas famed for whites, for example Friuli, tend to use white instead. In the Astigiano they use Asti, a sweet sparkling wine.
A couple of notes: Go easy on the wine. You'll want enough so when you divvy the strawberries out each diner will have a couple of tablespoons of juice in his or her bowl, but not more. Also, be sure that the strawberries are quite ripe. Fragole al vino is a vast disappointment when they are not.
If you would rather not use wine (fragole al vino are a great treat for children, and Elisabetta's grandmother used to slip her an extra ration of juice on the sly when she was little) you can use lemon juice instead. Fragole al vino are also very good spooned over vanilla ice cream.
Of course there are other things one can do with strawberries:
- They're wonderful sprinkled with Marsala, Sicily's glorious fortified wine.
- They're the perfect fruit of a fresh-fruit crostata, one of the most spectacular springtime desserts.
- They make a delightfully refreshing gelatin.
- Home made strawberry sherbet is much better than the commercial stuff.
- Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar are mighty nice.
- As strawberry preserves, they're a perfect reminder of spring in the winter months.
- So is fragolo, a delicate after dinner drink
- Make a strawberry shake, or frullato di fragole.
Here are some other alternatives for strawberries from the Net. They're not necessarily Italian, but they do look like they'd be good:
- Strawberry Pecan
- Strawberry Watermelon
A cocktail one could quite easily find in Italy too.
Got more sites / recipes to suggest? Let me know!
PS -- if you'd like to be kept abreast of what's happening on this site, and of what's going on in the world of Italian Cuisine and travel, sign up for my newsletter! Or, if you have a general Italian food or travel-related question or comment, post it on the Bulletin Board.