What happened to the wild strawberry?
Nemi is a small town in the Castelli Romani region about 20 km southeast of Rome, famous for its wild strawberries. Every June, the city throws a party to celebrate its harvest. The streets come alive with music and dancing and local girls in traditional dress – a cross between Morris and Snow White dancers – hand out strawberries to thousands of visitors. Strawberries also appear in a few specialty dishes such as strawberry pizza and strawberry risotto, the latter being a bruised pink concoction sprinkled with berries and covered in parmesan cheese. “If you’ve tried this risotto enough, you’d probably love it,” says Jacob Kenedy as tactfully as possible. The chef-owner of the Italian restaurant Bocca di Lupo in London brought me to Italy to share his passion for wild strawberries. At strawberry risotto, however, it draws the line.
Common strawberries have virtually replaced wild strawberries in commercial production. Broad and sweet (at least in theory), the versions we find in supermarkets are often disappointing and soggy. In contrast, wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca) are usually the size of a raspberry and very aromatic. Nemi strawberries, which grow in the woods around town but are also cultivated, are among the best, with a richer, richer taste from the volcanic soil.
Every year Kenedy passes through Rome to a family home in Sperlonga and his love for wild strawberries is rekindled. “What led me to open Bocca di Lupo,” he says, “was that I was fascinated by the foods that transported me to Italy. Wild strawberries do that. They are part of the culinary furniture like the carbonara. The taste is so intense that it seems unreal. He compares the flavor to chewing gum: “A strawberry caricature but also completely natural. By eating wild strawberries, you understand what people were thinking when they made strawberry flavoring.
During the season (which can last until August), Kenedy serves wild strawberries at Bocca in dishes such as rum baba, maritozzi (rolls with cream) and mascarpone ice cream. But until now, he’s never made wild strawberry ice cream with fresh strawberries (although regular strawberries have been featured at Gelupo, his gelateria across the street). So, before leaving Nemi, we collect a case to make some in one of the best ice cream parlors in Rome. The Gelateria del Teatro in Via dei Coronari is run by former pastry chef Stefano Marcotulli and his partner Silvia. Its flavors include Amalfi lemon, Sicilian pistachio, Calabrian licorice and pairings such as raspberry and sage and dark chocolate with nero d’avola (Sicilian red wine).
The couple never tried the wild strawberry ice cream either. Wild strawberries cost €20 a kilo here (and four times as much in the UK). Regular strawberries are closer to €4 per kilo. Thus, incorporating Nemi berries into ice cream is “like mixing a Rolex,” observes Kenedy. But everyone is intrigued to see how it turns out. Silvia spills the strawberries in a bowl; add water, sugar, natural stabilizers, dextrose and lemon juice; then mix and pour the mixture into the ice cream maker. Ten minutes later, it’s done. Baby pink and dotted with black pips, the ice cream is velvety, fragrant and surprisingly good. The couple are so impressed that they slip the tub of ice cream straight into the counter display.
“That ice cream had the same effect on me,” Kenedy later says, now convinced to add his own version to Bocca. In London, Kenedy sources wild strawberries from Spain or France, as Italian supply chains are not as viable. All Greens sells in-store or for pre-order (it also delivers to homes), although you can easily grow your own too. Kenedy prefers her strawberries with nothing more than a sprinkle of sugar and a little lemon to amp up the flavor. “Regular strawberries that you can eat okay,” he says. “Wild strawberries that you can only enjoy because they are tiny.” It tells the story of his two-year-old son, Dylan, who was already addicted to strawberries when he first tried wild strawberries. “He couldn’t believe what he was tasting,” he recalls. “His eyes popped out of his head. He gobbled up the whole bowl. For a two-year-old, the endorsements don’t get any bigger.