Methyl anthranilate probably doesn’t sound all that delicious to you, and if you were never friends with chemistry, it might seem downright scary. I promise not to give an organic chemistry lecture here, but please bear with me for a moment. Methyl anthranilate is both fascinating and mouthwatering–this molecule occurs naturally in some of the most fragrant fruit and flowers, from Concord grapes to orange blossom, from mandarins to gardenias. And also in tiny wild strawberries, fraises des bois.
Also known as woodland strawberries (Fragaria Vesca L.), they are only as big as your pinkie nail, but their flavor is so intense that a fistful of berries will perfume an entire room. They smell of caramel, orange flowers and muscat. When you taste them for the first time, you realize that this is what every strawberry flavor tries to imitate.
Until the 18th century, woodland strawberry was the chief cultivated variety, but with the discovery of a Chilean strawberry in the 1700s and the creation of new hybrids by French botanists, it fell out of favor. We have our large, juicy berries, but they’re mild stuff next to fraises des bois. Today, the trend has been reversed, and research is underway to create a strawberry with the aroma of woodland berries.
But it’s still a work in progress, and true wild strawberries are rare and expensive. I’m so obsessed with their flavor that I’ve even tried growing them.* While my yield of 10 berries was enough to give me a rush of pleasure, I began to wonder how I can mimic the best perfumer of all–nature.
Chemical names may not sound romantic, but methyl anthranilate and methyl N-formylanthranilate are the very components that give wild berries their exquisite flavor. Methyl anthranilate is also present in orange blossom water, so why not combine this essence with the cultivated strawberries in a simple compote? The first time I made it, I poured far too much floral water, which instantly overpowered the mild flavor of my berries. A smaller quantity created a more delicate nuance, while adding a touch of lemon juice gave a bright note.
I’m happy enough with the results to share this simple recipe. The orange blossom water gives a beautiful twist even to unexciting supermarket produce. Another trick for amplifying flavor is to toss fruit in sugar and heat it up for a few minutes in a pan or hot oven. Cool to room temperature and then add orange blossom water. It’s as easy as that.
Strawberry Orange Blossom Compote
Delicious over ice cream, angel food cake, or Victoria sponge. Spoon it over pavlovas and garnish with whipped cream. Served over yogurt with some muesli, it makes for a healthy and indulgent breakfast, my favorite kind. Or simply enjoy it on its own, because this flavorful compote really doesn’t require much accompaniment.
You can substitute mild flavored honey for sugar.
1 lb (~500g) strawberries, hulled and sliced in half
sugar to taste
1 teaspoon lemon juice
start with 1/2 teaspoon of orange blossom water and add more if needed
Mix all of the ingredients and leave for 30 minutes to 2 hours to allow flavors to meld. You can keep the compote in the fridge overnight, and while the flavor will be excellent, the strawberries might soften.
Woodland strawberries are easy to grow in the pot, and I highly recommend trying it. The plant looks pretty, and even if all you get is a few berries, the bold flavor more than makes up for the low yield. The leaves and stems are also useful. Dry them in the shade and use them in teas (excellent for digestion) and facial toners.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin
Do you have any favorite strawberry recipes? How do you usually enjoy these berries?