A small village with a great reputation: strawberries from Wépion
Slightly south of Namur, on the left bank of the Meuse valley, you will find Wépion and its glossy red, ripe and juicy strawberries, if you go in the right season. You can discover the story behind these strawberries in the village museum and enjoy sampling the delicious goodies in the garden or at roadside stalls.
The area where this delicious fruit now grows was once home to families of foxes. In fact, it was the foxes that gave the village its name, which comes from the Latin vulpilio (fox country). Meanwhile, you can still find Drève Vulpilio (Vulpilio Avenue). In Medieval times, the dark and wild woods of Marlagne extended to the banks of the river Meuse, providing perfect shelter for foxes. As from the 18th century, the woods gradually made way for fields in which to grow hops for the many breweries in the local town of Namur.
The field was divided into 'hop pits', each measuring about one square metre and enclosed in an earthen mound to keep hold of the fertiliser and water. Stakes measuring five metres high were placed in each of the four corners, along which the hop ranks could climb. Some farmers began growing wild strawberries in this free and sunny area. There was no doubting the medicinal powers of these small aromatic fruits. They were even reported by the pharmacopoeia. No surprise, you might say, when you think they were connected with the Virgin Mary and symbolised paradise on earth. They were grown in the region until about 1860-1870, but no one ever managed to make the fruit bigger by selection. A decade later, 'big' brother came onto the scene.
The French king Louis XIV dreamed of ruling the world. Anything that helped him realise his ambition was given his particular support and received with great enthusiasm, including art and science. In 1712, an engineer in the French navy, botanist and explorer named Amédée-François Frézier (1682-1773) set off to chart the South-American west coast on France's behalf, and to describe and depict the Spanish ports and fortifications. In 1714, he gathered five samples of the so-called Chilean white strawberry plant from the Chilean coastal city Concepción, near Santiago, to grow in his garden in Plougastel, in Brittany near Brest. His plan was unsuccessful. After all, Frézier had only taken female plants of the dioecious Fragaria chiloensis, the scientific name for the Chilean white strawberry. Unfortunate. However, a friend and strawberry expert was able to fertilise them with the hermaphroditic flowers of the scarlet strawberry from Virginia (Fragaria virginiana) in his garden. From then on, Frézier was able to enjoy his own harvest, as a cross between two American species.
After 1750, it was this cross from Brittany that went on to conquer Paris, London, Germany … In fact, the roots of all European strawberries grown today lie in this very species. Including the delicious delights from Wépion. Around 100 years later these replaced their predecessor, the lowly wild strawberry, for good.