The Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo) is an ornamental shrub that grows all over Victoria but its abundant, plush, juicy fruits just end up littering sidewalks. Seems no one remembers we’ve been eating these succulent fruits for thousands of years! Right now in the PNW the fruits are bright red & ripe with a mild, sweet flavour (some berries can be very sweet with up to 40% sugar!) and popped right into the mouth.
Their rough-textured skin gives them a slightly grainy/gritty texture but inside they’re soft and creamy. Because they bruise and turn mushy very easily, they are rarely served fresh but traditionally used in jams, conserves marmalades, baking etc – like this Strawberry Tree Crumble Cake!
Strawberry tree fruits are also a popular ingredient in all kinds of traditional boozy drinks. In Portugal, the fruits of the Strawberry tree are made into a fortified wine called Aguardente de Medronho, and regions in Eastern Europe prepare the traditional drink Rakia from the fruits, and this spirit is distilled twice. Wowser. I’m in the process of making a Strawberry Tree liqueur now for Gather Victoria Patrons – but meanwhile, I thought I’d post this recipe from the Patreon Cookbook to encourage the rest of you to get better acquainted with the Strawberry Tree!
An evergreen shrub within the Ericaceae family, the Strawberry Tree is native to the Mediterranean region and western Europe and still grows wild in woodland and field edges. Related to the rose family which brings us so many succulent fruits renowned for their romantic, love-inducing properties, it’s no wonder the strawberry tree was sacred to both Venus and Aphrodite. I’m pretty sure the high sugar content which turns the berries boozy as they ripen had something to do with it!
The ancient Romans believed the Strawberry Tree possessed magical powers and finding an Arbutus branch with three berries ensured good fortune. The poet Ovid included Strawberry Tree in the list of fruits descended from the “The Golden Age” a time when people were contented with food that grew without cultivation.
In southwest and northwest Ireland, it is known as either “Irish strawberry tree”, or the Killarney strawberry tree – and archaeological evidence suggests it was introduced 4000 years ago by the Beaker People. In 1586 Irish Strawberry Trees were sent to Elizabethan courtiers and in 1649 Henrietta Maria of Wimbledon: called it “one very fayre tree, called the Irish arbutus standing in the middle parte of the sayd kitchin garden, very lovely to look upon”. By the 18th century, Arbutus unedo was well known enough in English gardens and in 1778 Thomas Jefferson brought them to his famous Monticello gardens.
Today it is a much-beloved transplant growing ornamentally around the world in suburban and urban green spaces. It grows in climates on the milder side down the PNW into Southern California and you can identify it by its emerald green oval leaves which are glossy and slightly serrated, fruits hang in small clusters often with white blossoms still attached. And it’s the candy apple red berries you’re after! (Unripe ones can upset your tummy.) Right now they are at the very height of ripeness! And there are plenty! (Also important to note if they’re very ripe eating a lot could lead to mild intoxication – but I’ve yet to experience this effect!)
This a pretty straightforward crumble cake recipe and I really think the Strawberry tree fruits/berries are yummy in it. They dissolve into a soft creamy filling that tastes like a cross between guava and peach and complements the crumbly topping perfectly.
Strawberry Tree Crumble Cake
For the Cake:
- 1/3 cup butter, room temperature
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 cup sour cream room temperature
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 & 1/2 cups strawberry plant berries, sliced
For the Crumble Topping:
- 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 cup butter melted then cooled
For the Cake:
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees and liberally grease an approx. 8 x 8 sized pan.
- Beat together butter and sugar on high speed for 4-5 minutes until light and fluffy.
- Add in egg and mix until combined. Slowly add in flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda until just combined then add sour cream, vanilla extract and mix until combined – but don’t over mix!
- Evenly spread the cake batter in pan then top with sliced strawberry plant berries.
For the Crumble Topping:
- Whisk together flour, both sugars, salt, and cinnamon until mixed. Drizzle butter over flour mixture and using a fork, stir together until crumbs form.
- Sprinkle crumbs over strawberries. Bake cake for 35-40 minutes OR until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Allow cake to cool for at least 20 minutes.