Doubtlessly, you know that summer begins on June 21. It’s the summer solstice and the longest day of the year, after all. But the beginning of summer hasn’t always been so cut and dry. Rather, according to the old European folk calendar, it begins a full six weeks earlier on May 1.
The days are warmer, the sun shines for just a bit longer, and the first of summer’s harvest arrives, usually in the form of plump red strawberries. These little berries played an integral role in May festivities that welcomed summer. You’d find bowls filled with fresh cream and strawberries, infused wines, and so much more.
Lucky CharmsIn Bavaria, dairymen would tie little baskets of the berries to the horns of their cows as an offering for the elves. The elves, being particularly fond of the berry, would bless the farm with an abundance of healthy calves and plenty of cream in return.
Love Potions and NewlywedsWhile strawberries may be a lucky fruit, it’s their link to love that’s perhaps their strongest. Strawberries are members of the rose family, and like roses, they’re considered love charms.
In Old Norse mythology, the strawberry was a sacred food of Freya, the goddess of love and motherhood. She’d hold the spirits of children who died in infancy within the fruit, so that they could ascend to heaven.
The berry isn’t just a symbol of maternal love, but of romantic love, too. They’re also representative of the Roman love goddess Venus. This promise of love runs deep, and you’ll find it blooming in folkloric traditions throughout the Old World.
A Symbol of PurityIn the Medieval era, strawberries held a measure of religious significance as well. As the fruit contains neither pit nor peel, it was considered a symbol of perfection. Its soft white flower symbolized the purity of the Virgin Mary, while its red fruit represented Christ’s blood, and its three-partitioned leaf represented the Holy Trinity.
How to Buy the Best StrawberriesWhether you’re planning to concoct a love potion or just want to make a really lovely strawberry tart, there are a few things you should look out for when you shop for these fruits. While supermarkets stock strawberries year-round, their season typically begins in May and peaks in June around midsummer.
Farmers markets and U-pick farms are your best bet for finding ripe, fragrant berries. Many small farmers who focus on local markets grow heirloom varieties. These varieties tend to be more flavorful than those you’ll find in the grocery store, which are bred less for flavor and more for their ability to withstand extensive handling, transportation, and lengthy storage.
Look for firm fruits that are uniformly red from the tip of the berry to its fringed green stem. Ripe berries should also smell sweet with a rich, berry-like aroma. They should be free from any soft spots, and if you’re picking them yourself, head out to the garden or U-pick farm early in the day, as the mid-day heat will wilt them in your basket if you’re not careful.
The whole strawberry plant is edible, but the fruit is certainly the prize. Serve them fresh and ripe, baked into muffins, or cooked into sauces and jams to preserve them for the wintertime. You can dry strawberry leaves and use them as tea, as they’re rich in vitamin K, carotenes, and minerals, and instead of tossing the strawberry tops into the trash, consider placing them in a jar of apple cider vinegar. In about a week’s time, you’ll have a strawberry-infused vinegar that’s perfect for dressing summer salads.