Juliet Coombe goes in search of ‘the fruit of love’ on a bumpy tractor ride in the Ambewela region, which takes you on a fascinating tour covering growing strawberries from seeds to saplings under cover and finally a strawberry treat at the farm shop at the end.
“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did,” wrote Dr William Butler in the 1600s. The strawberry is perhaps the most popular sweet fruit on the planet and it is hardly surprising with such an amazing story and taste. They have of course grown wild for millennia and can be read about in the poetry of ancient Romans such as Ovid and Virgil. Although, the commercial varieties we have today are a cross between the Chilean large fruited variety of the Mapuche and Huilliche Indians and the European varieties, it was the English who really moved the breeding program forward, which is very apt as the strawberry is actually part of the rose family and 20 tons of them are consumed each year at the home of tennis Wimbledon along with 7,000 litres of cream. However, the French can lay claim to breeding the first line of the modern variety as well as being the first to move the wild strawberry from the forest to the garden.
Besides being very tasty, very red and heart-shaped, and therefore seen as the fruit of Venus or Love, it has been used in countless different ways and subject to as many folk tales. The strawberry, so named because of the straw-like runner shoots it sends out horizontally, is a great source of vitamin C, antioxidants, potassium, fibre and folate; as well as being wonderful to bathe in – ask Madame Tullien from Napoleon’s court; or even to write with as did the 15th century European monks. The Romans used them to cure pretty much anything, including melancholy, fainting, all inflammations, fevers, throat infections, kidney stones, halitosis, attacks of gout, and diseases of the blood, liver and spleen – no wonder they were symbols of purity, healing and passion. They were not all good, though, as Anne Boleyn of Henry V111 s court in England discovered, when a strawberry shaped birthmark was ominously found on her neck, making her the butt of witch conspiracies, or with the fate of Shakespeare’s Desdemona, whose Othello had them on his hanky. Some even believe that if you halve a strawberry with someone of the opposite sex you will fall in love with each other – and indeed it does put everyone in a good mood after eating a bowl of them.
Not a great deal is known about Sri Lanka’s history with the strawberry but Jagro strawberry farm and Ramya Horticulture are definitely worth a visit where they can tell you more about their beginnings and the two varieties they grow: the Tamar, which comes from Israel and is characterised by good taste, shape and size and has a long productive season; and the Festival, an attractive, tasty, easy to harvest, low waste, slow perishing variety of strawberry, which comes from Florida and is named after their regular event, the Strawberry Festival.
After buying strawberry jam from the farm shop, trying a milk shake and buying a pile of them, head off to Jetwing Warwick Gardens for a rice and curry Sri Lankan lunch. Here you can enjoy a menu also picked fresh from the estates farm or treat yourself and spend a weekend staying in this gorgeous stone built bungalow and learn the art of organic farming and have a go at making coffee and for something really interesting hand making local tea to go with your hand pick strawberries.