Lets start at the very bottom of the strawberry totem pole. I am not talking about the hard bred belly-ache berries meant to be bounced around on the back of a flatbed truck thousands of miles from a desert based hydroponic irrigated tent city where they have been coaxed from lonely ne’er-a-honey-bee-touched individual stems suspended above vats of chemical gels. I understand that these berries are indeed fake, they don’t taste real, they have that hairy 5 o’clock shadowed incredible hulk look to them and can crunch like Cortland apples when we attempt to bite them. We’ve all seen them, been mesmerized and horrified by the sheer plastic existence of their glorious buxom audaciousness. The strawberries one commonly finds available in the middle of February displayed next to cans of reddi whip, for instance. They look like Alice Cooper’s tongue. These are big and bad at the market, and have been, since, voila, February. They sprouted into importing warehouse-monger’s tables like a bad fungus at that time and now are bigger and redder than ever.
Then we have a pretty flowery kind of fungus that sprouts on old walls and makes us feel nostalgic, the proliferated profitable Provencal variety that is yes a certified variety, but which, while perhaps once indeed a very nice berry, have been watered down and bred together and sorted and sifted and had their seasons pushed to just about the limit of their existence. Those precious precocious fully market-maximized French ones, also most likely never having touched soil although their ancestors from the 70s were soil-touchers. They are presented alongside the rest with the hyped pretentious ceremony of the Boujolais Nouveau. I know you have seen them: Gariguette otherwise known as those supposedly coming from the Garrigue. Although sometimes you do come across a juicy tasty basket here and there, in the product we see here in the valley, the quality control is just too thin and the temptation just too great through the vast logistic channels that bring them from the nether-regions for us to be able to rely on them as real berries anymore. Maybe at the source, at one time, but not here, not now.
Then there are the real strawberries. The ones you have to look for and sometimes you don’t find. The ones that tickle your nose with a teasing promise of fidelity, forming questions in your mind - should I trust again this time, can I trust again? Will these berries deliver? The ones that are soft and won’t last but a couple of days from the day you get them. Will we pay for some hype or will I be transported back to that oblong room with the frumpy firm semi-double bed as only the Russians can imagine to be good for two people in St. Petersburg, where Loic left me to dwell alone with that little sack of forest berries that the lady had brought to the market in a cup and was doling out with a soup spoon? The ones that I tasted, reclined, twisted my torso just so, and fed to myself one after the other from that crinkly paper in the lace filtered twilight, lost in Russian fairytales? Will I ever experience that flavor, that moment, again?
So what is the precocious variety I succumbed to last weekend here in Lyon? It’s only one more of those incredibly tender, wild, snatched from the edge of the forest-floor tasting berries that I raise my right hand and I hereby certify and swear on my gourmandise, are real. The Cigaline.
Good and real, and close if not as good as the Mara des Bois that I wrote about in their season last summer. We bought a half pound, not knowing how good they were, but having a suspicion that they might prove their mettle due to their shape and color and smell. Knowing the vendor as a producer, and not having seen this variety anywhere else, I was drawn to buy them – why the heck not?
Bref – I brought them out and unceremoniously put the basket on the table between us, with a passing thought about how many fruits I should be eating. A dutiful thought. Loic likes a bowl of water on the table in which he can rinse the berries. It’s a French thing. We picked them up by their green stems and bit them off at the base.
How extraordinary, I thought. They veer quite close, in fact. This afternoon I look at the plaster moulding and shadows of the flowers coming in from the walls, watching them move, thinking of how Cezanne painted his walls grey, and colors and contrast, and I think perhaps this berry has earned its mettle. Yes, better than the rest. Like strawberries should taste. Give me another. Give me more. And we continued like that until, voila, they were gone.