Two more weeks to go then I’m going to Belgium again and I’ll stay there for a while, on the one hand because of the Easter holiday, and on the other hand in order to participate in the Trolls & Legends festival!! This year the topic is the Vikings and Rollo (Clive Standen) will be the special guest!!! I’m so looking forward to the big event.
But because of the strawberry season is also coming as the first fresh fruit of the season it occurred to me the Strawberry museum in Belgium, which is housed in the former gardener’s home in Wépion/Namur, built in Mosan style. I think I’ll visit it again!
Wépion, is a village within the city boundaries of Namur, Belgium. Located 8 kilometers south of the city centre, it’s considered as Belgian’s strawberry capital. The strawberry has been cultivated there for more than 150 years, because Wépion benefits from a micro-climate, sun-exposed plantations on west sloping ground and has a perfect ground for this type of culture. The city produces a strawberry beer under the brand name La Wépionnaise.
The Strawberry empire
Plunge into the ancient history of the strawberry, inseparable from Wépion and discover its origins, its culture and its spot on the sunny slopes of the valley of the Meuse. Walk along the enchanting world of the Small Fruits Garden: follow the guide and learn to recognize some of the many species of native or exotic varieties. Look, smell and taste the delights that nature offers us in this magnificent garden of 60 acres,-that was what I did last year in June!
For many Belgians, Wépion has long been synonymous with strawberries. Carefully picked berries from this village, which has been in the strawberry growing business since the mid-17th century, are renowned for their fully ripe flavor. In Brussels, 50 miles to the northwest, Wépion berries fetch a premium price, roughly twice what the competition is going for. In recent years, though, the Wépion strawberry has faced stiff competition from growers within Belgium as well as from producers in the Netherlands, Spain and elsewhere. Yet despite being outgunned in both volume and price, the Wépion growers maintain a strong hold on their small share of the regional strawberry market.
The growers rally around their brand, La Criée de Wépion, and remain a presence in supermarkets in Brussels and area outdoor markets during the late spring and much of the summer. The growers’ big selling point is that with a limited distribution radius they can wait to pick berries at peak ripeness then quickly ship the fruit to stores in refrigerated trucks. Stocks of Wépion berries often sell out.
I spotted my first box of strawberries with the distinctive Wépion logo a year ago in May in an outdoor food market in Brussels. I bought that first half-kilo box for 6 euros. Given how much I was enjoying the Wépions —I was averaging a box or more a week —and their intriguing context, I decided to visit the village on the Meuse River last June to discover what all the fuss was about.
The strawberries come from the region’s cooperative production center and auction house (in French, “la criée”). My Sunday trip coincided with its annual open house. I arrived at the village around 10.00am, just before the opening. I walked into the warehouse, filled with two waist-high stacks of strawberries in flat wooden trays, a few minutes before Paul Gobiet, the Criée auctioneer and spokesman, greeted the visitors.
During the one hour long tour, Mr. Gobiet explained how the cooperative began in 1962 to organize the mom and pop strawberry growers in the region and standardize prices. Despite those efforts, family berry patches gradually disappeared.
Regional strawberry cultivation endures on about a dozen large farms in the southern French-speaking Wallonia region, not just around Wépion and Namur but in the neighboring provinces of Hainaut and Liège.
The Wépion and Namur farms produce about 400 tons of berries a year, the Wallonian region about 4,000 tons. Both are dwarfed by the 40,000 tons grown each year in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern half of Belgium
While the north produces “really good berries,” Mr. Gobiet acknowledged diplomatically, Wépion berries from La Criée are picked “at full maturity,” resulting in superior sugar levels and taste. He discounted myths that Wépion berries benefit from the region’s soil or fog rolling in from the Meuse.-“It’s the way we pick them,”- he insisted.
When fully ripe on the vine, the stems are carefully severed by the picker’s (deliberately) long fingernails and then rolled into boxes without finger contact to prevent bruising. Mr. Gobiet dismissed the strawberries that enter Belgium from Spain, China and elsewhere as “full of chemicals” and colored water, and beneath contempt.
Picked in the morning, regional berries are trucked to La Criée in late afternoon each day. After the evening auction the berries are placed in the refrigerated trucks, chilled to about 46 degrees Fahrenheit and travel overnight to supermarkets and stands.
After the tour ended, I left with a box of berries to munch as I headed into town to the Strawberry Museum, Musée de la Fraise. The small museum is in an old cottage on the town’s main street, the Chaussée de Dinant, featured vintage photos showing pickers in the fields, wholesalers in town proudly posing by their strawberry trays, the annual strawberry parade and a 1933 photograph of Wépion’s first organized strawberry market.