Fraises - Strawberries. The Wild Strawberry and the Story of the French Strawberries From Plougastel.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman



 A strawberry in French is une fraise or un fraisier. 

To order,  strawberries with whipped cream in France, ask for; Fraises à la crème fouettée. S'il vous plaît.

Photograph courtesy of David Blackwell.
   With green houses and imports from France's Caribbean départements  strawberries are available in nearly 12 months a year.  Despite that even the best of French strawberries the Fraise des Boise, the forest strawberries, have seasons;  even though these wild strawberries are now cultivated.

   If your menu offers fraise des boise, do not think twice if they are fresh and firm. You do not want very old and squidgy wild strawberries.  The texture is half the pleasure.

   To order your wild strawberries in French.  Si les fraises des bois sont frais et ferme, et seulement si ils sont alors je vais les choisir, S'il vous plaît. That clearly indicates, in French, If your wild strawberries are fresh and firm then, and only then, I will choose them, please. Squidgy wild strawberries are not so much fun, though I suppose you could make a strawberry milk shake with them! Fresh cream that you may wish to add is crème fraiche and whipped cream is crème fouetee.

A wonderful strawberry and chocolate cake.
Photograph courtesy of Joana Petrova.
    Despite the imports and the strawberries you already know, there are some very special strawberries that have been developed in France; all strawberries are not equal.  Also there are many very special strawberry desserts and some of those you should try when in France.
Fresh strawberries and blackberries
Photograph by courtesy of Suat Eman though
    Fraise des Boise – Forest strawberries, wild strawberries are small, unique, sweet, and totally wonderful, aromatic, wild strawberries; now also cultivated. These are absolutely my favorite strawberry when fresh; just add  a little fresh cream to a bowl of wild strawberries, possibly the slightest touch of sugar, and then you are in strawberry heaven.

Fresh Fraise des Bois, wild strawberries, aaaaah!
Wonderful even when cultivated.
When I have no choice I do accept some fresh raspberries  or blackberries in the same bowl.  Just make sure that the strawberries are really fresh and not squishy just close your eyes and enjoy; that is strawberry heaven. (German  -  walderdbeere, monatserdbeere ), (Italian  - fragola di bosco), (Spanish - fresa del bosque,  frutilla ).

All fresh strawberries are wonderful, however some have a history. 

The story that follows is the story of one of France's most successful strawberries.

Fraise de Plougastel 
The strawberries of Plougastel.
   Fraise de Plougastel – Strawberries from around the town of Plougastel-Daoulas, in the département of Finistère, Bretagne.  This is the only town in France I know that has a museum dedicated to strawberries,  Le Musée de la Fraise et du Patrimoine, Plougastel, the museum of the strawberry and the heritage of Plougastel
    Amédée-François de Frézier (1682-1773), a French explorer, brought back with his other fruits and vegetables some unique strawberries he had found  Chile in South America,  Frézier began the cultivation of these unique and tasty strawberries in Plougastel-Daoulas, in  département's  of Finistère,  Brittany.  Plougastel-Daoulas is very close to the coast, as nearly far West in France as you may go before falling into the English Channel, or La Manche, as the French call it. In fact the département's name, Finistère, means, in English, Land’s End.  The tasty strawberries of Plougastel would make this small town famous, while he is not native son, Frézier is treated like one. 
    Strawberries are one of the few fruits that grew and developed independently in Europe, Asia and the New World as well. The difference in Frézier's strawberries was their size and taste. Many modern strains of strawberries are related to those first imports.
    French tradition give the success of this strawberry to the work of  Frézier together with Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie (1623-1688). Jean-Baptiste was the designer and head gardener of the Louis XIV’s Ppotager du Roi, the king’s unique market garden.  King Louis XIV had ordered a market garden established in the Chateau de Versailles to provide fruit and vegetables for his table and to provide those fruits even when they were not in season. The Ppotager du Roi, the king’s market garden was an early developer of hot houses. More importantly for future generations, at that time, apart from providing tasty fruit for the King the gardeners held the largest store of accumulated knowledge, in the world, for many fruits and vegetables.
   Frézier together with Jean-Baptiste are credited with popularizing and crossing these new strawberries. While I hesitate before I throw cold water on accepted tradition it is a rather unlikely story. Frézier, our strawberry importer, was only six years old when Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, our gardener, died! 
   Still Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie was the King’s man, dead or alive, and the garden he began continued after his death; it still continues today. The gardeners who came after Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie would, in any case, never have let a good strawberry go unappreciated. The gardeners, who in any case I believe were the sons of Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie would have worked with Frézier with pleasure. No doubt, twenty or more years later   date the gardeners’  of the king would have enjoyed adding the Fraise de Plougastel strawberries to garden. King Louis XIV lived until 1715 so  these strawberries may well have been offered to the king.  

Fresh strawberries from Plougastel

 The conserve, the jam, made with the Fraise de Plougstel

    When visiting the Chateau de Versailles find a spare hour to also visit the Potager du Roi. It is a ten minute walk from the Château, and will also be a very interesting visit.  Even more to  the point, here is a solution if your are thinking how you are going to spend your time while while you wait an hour or more for your tour of the Chateau! The guides are knowledgeable and you may see and hear about heirloom fruits that you will be unlikely to to hear or see anywhere else.

The Fete de Fraises in Plougastel-Douglas 
every second Sunday in June.
Always check dates with the Tourist Information Office as dates do occasionally change!
 An eau de vie made from the Fraises de Poigastel.
This is what you may well be offered for a digestif if you eat dinner in the town.
   Writing this story has made my mouth water. There are hundreds, if not thousands of wonderful strawberry desserts in France. Here are two of my favorites. While the may not always be made with the Fraise de Plougastel  they should still be good.
 Fraises à la Romanoff, Fraises Romanoff  - Strawberries Romanoff. Fresh strawberries that are macerated, drenched in Cointreau or Grand Marnier, and then covered with whipped cream, not ice cream. 
 Fraises à la Romanoff.
Coupe Romanoff (La)  -  A large cup or bowl  of fresh strawberries covered with vanilla ice-cream and then with whipped cream.
Coupe Romanoff

    The two desserts above were both created by the French chef Antonin Carême for the Russian Czar Alexander 1. The Czars were Romanoffs.

  A word of warning. I have also been served horrible versions of these wonderful desserts; the worst was a Coupe Romanoff  that came as block of vanilla ice cream dotted with a few strawberries and nothing else, if that happens to you send it back and ask for something else.   Tsar Alexander I certainly wouldn’t have accepted factory ice cream with a couple of over ripe strawberries on top; that would have been reason enough to call out the palace guard. 

Other popular French strawberries include: 

Darselect– A popular French strawberry with a rounded shape and fresh on many menus from April through June. 

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman


Copyright 2010,2014

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