14 July 2009

Las Fresas de Irapuato

When I first came to Irapuato in October of 1998 for a visit before I moved here a few months later there was a sign over the highway at the entrance to the town that said, "Bienvenido a Irapuato, La Capital Mundial de las Fresas"..."Welcome to Irapuato, the Strawberry Capital of the World". The sign isn't there anymore and I didn't even notice when they took it down. Actually it was a bit outdated even then. However, at one time and for over one hundred years Irapuato was definitely the Strawberry Capital of Mexico even if it wasn't quite the World Capital. If you search on the Internet you will find that there are dozens of towns in North America that claim to be the World Strawberry Capital but in reality if those towns aren't Salinas or Watsonville, California then they have no legitimate claim to fame. The Central Coast of California is the best place in the world to grow strawberries and nearly 40% of the U.S. strawberries are grown in the Salinas - Watsonville area. In 2007 (latest figures available) The United States as a whole produced well over a million tons of strawberries in California, Florida, Oregon, North Carolina, Washington, Michigan, New York, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio and is considered the number one country in strawberry production. Russia is the number two strawberry producing country with only about one third of U.S. production followed by Spain, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, Poland, Mexico, Egypt, Morocco, United Kingdom, Ukraine, Italy, France. Hey! We forgot something! What about China? Well, the Chinese fairly recently discovered that they love strawberries just as much as everyone else and with their new affluence there is a big market. In fact, nobody knows for sure how many strawberries they grow and there is speculation that by now or very soon it may equal or even exceed U.S. production.

It really doesn't matter how many strawberries are actually produced in Irapuato. In Mexico, the City of Irapuato will forever be associated with strawberries and the people who live here will be called "Freseros" or "Strawberry Heads" just as the people in our international "Sister City", Green Bay, Wisconsin, are called "Cheese Heads". So how did Irapuato become associated with strawberries in the first place? Well, I'll tell you, but first I have to backpedal a little bit. Let's get in our "wayback" machine and go "way back" to the year 1700. In that year, with the death of Charles II of Spain and the ascension of Phillip V, the grandson of King Louis XIV of France, the line of succession of Spanish royalty passed from the House of Hapsburg to the House of Bourbon. How this actually happened is too complicated to get into here and really not worth mentioning anyway except for the fact that this was a very unsettled time in Europe and there were spies everywhere. Being a very shrewd operator, King Louis took advantage of the fact that his grandson was now King of Spain and he sent out spies to learn all that he could about Spanish interests. King Louis sent a young spy named Amédée François Frézier to Chile to check things out in that part of New Spain. Along with Frézier's observations on fortresses, armies, guns and supply routes, governors and Indians, he included a description and drawing of the very large Chilean strawberry. A collector as well as an observer, in 1714 he managed to bring back to France five of these Chilean strawberry plants (Fragaria chiloensis L.) by painstakingly caring for them on the six month return trip. They were distributed among several gardens and propagated by their "runners" and then...nothing happened for a long, long, time. Unwittingly our hero had brought back five female plats and to make fruit there needed to be male plants as well. There is another ironic twist to this story. Amédée François Frézier's family name was derived from the French word for the strawberry -- fraise. The name was bestowed upon one of his ancestors by the French King Charles in the year 914 in return for the gift of a bowl of wild strawberries. The Spanish name for the strawberry, "la fresa" was derived from the French "fraise" but in Chile the strawberry is still called "la frutilla" or "little fruit" which is what the Spaniards called them originally.

Up until now strawberries certainly were known throughout Europe and North America but they were not cultivated. The three most common wild species that people were familiar with were Fragaria vesca and Fragaria moschata in Europe and Fragaria virginiana in America. Around 1760, in France some Fragaria virginiana from America were planted near some Fragaria chiloensis L. from Chile by a man named Antoine Nicolas Duchesne and the result was a wonderful new hybrid named Fragaria ananassa (Garden Strawberry) which became the basis for the strawberries that are cultivated today. The spread of the new strawberry was slow, however, and it didn't make its way to America until about 1800 to the New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore areas. In 1836 a man named Charles Mason Hovey developed the Hovey strawberry which is considered as the starting point of American strawberry production. It was the standard cultivar for many years but at first there was a problem. People still did not realize that there was a male and a female plant. They kept tearing out the plants that did not bear fruit not realizing that they were male plants and essential for fertilization. Eventually this got worked out and plants were developed with both male and female flowers on the same plant.

According to the best source available the strawberry arrived in Mexico from France in 1849 but there is nothing said about where it was first planted. The first plants were selections of F. chiloensis, called Negrita and Poderosa. In 1852 a man named Nicolás Tejeda who was a local political figure brought some plants to Irapuato where they were planted in the area now known as Colonia Santa Julia which you can see in the map below. It wasn't until about 1858 that people figured out how to propagate them and a small commercial operation began at a hacienda called San Juan de Retana in the area where the Rio Silao and the Rio Guanajuato enter Irapuato from the north fairly close together. In time a German horticulturist named Oscar Droege came to Irapuato and taught the local people the best ways to cultivate strawberries. Around 1880 the railroad came to Irapuato and a prominent businessman named Joaquín Chico González began using the railroad to ship strawberries to restaurants and markets in Mexico City. Many travelers who passed through Irapuato in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries noted in their journals that they bought a basket of strawberries that were offered to them by track side vendors at the Irapuato station. Commercial strawberry production in quantity really didn't begin in Irapuato until 1948, with the opening of the first freezer plant. Beginning about 1953, the industry expanded to the region around Zamora, east of Guadalajara, in the State of Michoacan, about two hundred miles from Irapuato. By 1954 there were about 2,400 acres planted to strawberries in Mexico and ten years later there were 14,000 acres, about 9,000 acres in Guanajuato around Irapuato, and about 5,000 acres in Michoacan around Zamora.

Today, the city of Irapuato ceases to be the Strawberry Capital of the world because it lacks the type of soil and water along with the technological processes that would enable it to develop an improvement in the quality of the local fruit. For many years the strawberry and its cultivation, trade, and industrialization were a basic pillar of the local economy, with prolific fields of strawberries, as well as industrial plants where the strawberries were processed and packaged to be shipped to foreign markets, all which resulted in a substantial revenue for the city and its citizens. Sadly, Irapuato eventually lost its leadership position to other places more suited to the task. However, strawberries are still famous in this region and for many years have been the delight of those who, driven by the whim, stopped their burro or horse or car on the side of the road to enjoy a dish of strawberries with cream, a tradition that is not lost and will probably never be...and that my friends is the story of the strawberry in Irapuato. The only thing that I can add is the admonition to eat your strawberries. One serving (about eight strawberries) contains essential vitamins, fiber, potassium, and antioxidants and delivers more Vitamin C than an orange. As a matter of fact, I am going to eat some right now.

¡Vivan las Fresas! ¡Vivan los Freseros! ¡Viva Irapuato! ¡Viva México!


GlorV1 said...

Wow! That is a lot of good information. I can't believe that because you were planning on eatin strawberries you were prompted to provide us with this full report of strawberries. Your The Man Bob!! heheeh. Oh here is a UC Davis report on China's progress with strawberries. They seem to be doing very good.We better watch out.


You'll have to retype it to get there because it would not paste as a link.

I do thank you for the info and really the early pickers don't look at all different from the pickers of today. They bear the same weight on their back. I've picked strawberries before and it is quite stenuous and back breaking.
Thanks Bob, your info is appreciated.

Frankly Ronda said...

History is so wonderful and you do a great job sharing unusual topics.

I of course love strawberries! Had some for lunch today - in the USA.

Chrissy y Keith said...

I had some yesterday for breakfast and lunch. More today.

Amber said...

Fantastic, incredibly well-researched post, as usual. You are the king of bloggers.

Bob Mrotek said...

Gloria, AM, and Amber,
You are all so kind...

Chrissy & Keith,
A day without strawberries is like a day without sunshine :)

Kevin|Escorts said...

Buen post,esta bien recordar y hacer un recorrido histórico,me parece muy interesante y lo desconocía por completo.
Espero algún día probar esas fresas.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.