Whoever walks into Jan van den Elzen’s greenhouses with the expectation of seeing fields of strawberry plants, is in for a surprise. There are no long lanes of black earth, but instead neat alleys at eye level where sweet red fruits contrast the fresh green leaves of the plant. ‘Unexpected perhaps, but better in every possible way’, grower Jan van den Elzen explains. ‘Cultivating at ground-level may sound romantic, but it is tough on the collectors. And it actually doesn’t do the strawberries any good either. Growing them on the ground amidst the straw, often leaves them moist. This facilitates mould and rot. When aiming for less waste and better circumstances for both our people and nature itself, it is better to grow off the ground than on the ground. In addition, the action of rinsing the straw or soil off the strawberries tends to damage the delicate fruits.’
A grower and a chef have more in common than meets the eye. Both professionals work with nature, have to be product experts, anticipate the seasons, maintain a creative approach to challenges and a deep understanding of flavour. Pastry chef Maurits van der Vooren and strawberry cultivator Jan van den Elzen meet in the greenhouse and share their passion for strawberries.
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The art of quality
Pastry chef Maurits van der Vooren gets a tour of the greenhouse. He carefully smells, tastes, feels and observes the strawberries. Van den Elzen teaches: ‘Once the young strawberry plants have been sown, it takes a year before they can be harvested. We store the plants early December in the dark at a temperature of -1: artificial hibernation. We re-plant them in spring and then harvest them around six to eight weeks later. The more sunlight, the quicker the process. And the sun is what gives the strawberries their flavour. The more sun, the more sugars.’
Bees pollinate the plants in the greenhouse in a natural way. And artificial pest control is not in Van den Elzen’s vocabulary. ‘Does that make these strawberries organic?’, Van der Vooren inquires. Van den Elzen: ‘That requires the strawberries to grow on the ground, so this cultivation method cannot carry the organic title. But we do use biology to get rid of lice and mites. It is all done organically. So no need to rinse the strawberries which would damage their flavour and structure.’ Van den Elzen points to the honeycombs in his greenhouses. ‘Since a strawberry plant doesn’t carry any nectar, only pollen, the bees can’t extract any nutrients. That’s why our beekeeper makes sure there are honeycombs in the greenhouse so the bees remain strong and well-fed as they pollinate the plants. This is how we create the circumstances nature needs to do the best job it can. The best result is always achieved by thinking along with nature.’