Samui Wining & Dining
Tropical Pick

February’s Fruit of the Month – The Strawberry.

 

Page-4There’s no mention of them in The Bible. The ancient Romans had no use for them – although Virgil warned us to avoid wild ones, because of snakes in the grass. But one of Napoleon’s mistresses, Madame Talien, liked them well enough. She regularly bathed in strawberry juice – and it took 22 pounds of crushed berries to do the trick. Yes, they’ve been around for a long time, but in a wild and weedy way, and it’s only comparatively recently that they’ve started to put on some muscle.

      The skinny little wild strawberry was cultivated, although they were small and annoyingly prone to die-off in winter. So, to prevent this, they were wrapped up in bales of straw. Then they were harvested, still attached to the straw and sold at market as ‘straws of berries’ – hence the name. But it wasn’t until 1712 that the big, juicy strawberry that we know today appeared. A French engineer called Amédée-François Frézier, whilst working in Chile, came across some exceptionally large strawberries. He brought several of these plants back to France, and, over the next 250 years of interbreeding, these gave rise to the fruit that we know and love today.

      Which brings us neatly to Thailand, the ‘Golden Triangle’, opium and the King of Thailand. His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej is probably one of the most respected and best-loved of all the Thai monarchs. And he’s devoted many years of untiring energy to improve the lives of those in the impoverished northern areas of the Kingdom.

      In the mid-20th century, northern Thailand had become the number-one exporter of opium, worldwide. Many of the impoverished hill-tribe peoples, for whom subsistence living and slash-and-burn agriculture was the norm, found that opium was such a profitable cash crop that it was worth the risks to grow and sell it. To combat the growing drug trade, The King established a project, where he encouraged the hill-tribes to cultivate certain fruits and vegetables, with a guaranteed purchase, in exchange for giving up opium production. Everyone thus had a living wage, the Mafia-style hold of the drug lords was eliminated, and Thailand got rid of a huge international problem. He effectively replaced the ‘traditional’ crops of opium poppies with cost-effective alternative products, such as coffee, lettuce, grapes and ... strawberries!

      Now Thailand certainly isn’t a country you associate with grapes and strawberries. But Thai wine is now exported all over the world. And the climate in the Northern and Northwest regions of the Kingdom is perfect for growing strawberries – you may be surprised to know that it’s a ‘sweater and gloves’ area for parts of the year. And, unlike grapes, which needed a long cross-breeding program to develop new hybrids, strawberries took-off from the starting line like a rocket.

      As a nation, Thailand has a very sweet tooth. The Thais just love their ‘kanom’ – that’s the word for sweets and snacks, ranging from sugared-toast and pastries, through to bags of chips and packets of dried and sweetened fruit. And that includes strawberries. And, if you pop into any 7-11 and check out the ‘nibbles’, you’ll see packets of dried strawberry snacks amongst the others.

       And then you’ve got the fruit juices and alcoholic fruit drinks, fruit wine, flavoured yoghurts, dried fruits and fruit teas, to mention just a few. Although fresh strawberries (as in ‘frozen’) are only so far exported to Japan, the exports that incorporate Thai strawberries are vast – including all the products above. And, in addition to all these, there’s a whole range of beauty and spa products that contain strawberries, too. How about ‘sweet strawberry and green tea soap’? Or ‘strawberry glycerine soap with loofa’? Then there are aromatherapy products, lip balms, potpourri and incense. And most of these are enthusiastically exported, mainly to the huge US market. There are no official figures available for exports that are strawberry-related, but you can bet they all add up to a lot!

      Thai strawberries might not exactly be the best-known of fruits, but they come in handy in more ways than one. And more Thai strawberries equals less Thai opium, which, in turn, means less heroin. And that, my friends, is most assuredly a very good thing indeed.

         

Rob De Wet


 


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