Sunday, 7 August 2011

Strawberry Fields Forever

John Lennon's inspiration

Let me take you down indeed.  The ultimate British band waxing lyrical about the quintessential British berry.  Hard to imagine what the lads were on about, but how could they go wrong with Fragaria; the strawberry, symbol of the Virgin Mary and summer itself.  This Latin name Fraga refers to the fruit’s fragrance.  The English word ‘strawberry’ is due to the ‘straying’ erratic habit of the plant, much like many of its rose and blackberry cousins.

The cultivated berry with which we are so familiar is well travelled and not so very old.  An American variety, unsurprisingly plump and proud found its way to France with a French officer in the 17th century, but it was the Brits that were the innovators and pioneered large scale breeding; producing two famous varieties, the Downton and the Elton.  The very names conjure up some past-it pop star strolling the regal corridors of his empty abbey.  Yet it was a market gardener called Michael Keens that produced the ‘Keens’ Seedling’, blowing all others out of the race with sensational size and flavour.  The 1821 advent of this new super berry spread rapidly to the continent and back to America.  Nearly all modern varieties are derived from Michael’s magic seed.
So what makes the strawberry so special,  so perfect in every way?  Well, the timing couldn’t be better.  A long, often droll and boring English winter, (ok, I know, not this one) gives way to a wet spring, (ok, yes, driest on record...climate change and all that) and then strawberries hit late spring/early summer.  It is one of the first sure signs of good times ahead, a bright red siren of juicy goodness beckoning in the heat of July and August.  The Brits perfected them, sent them off for the world to sample, catching on like wildfire.  They are yours.  The strawberry is simply...well...English.  And we can be ruddy proud of that.  And we can make damn sure that we are savouring them as God intended, during the English strawberry season.  Take heed all you chefs and supermarkets that insist on plying us with foreign fluff in January...they may look like strawberries, but they don’t taste like strawberries and it just isn’t cricket.  Never mind animal rights protesters.  (No, seriously, never mind them)  Someone should start up a seasonal vegetable/fruit protesters organisation.  Picket those uncaring fools selling asparagus in December.  But, I digress.  It is the flavour really, isn’t it.  Sure, we can allude to the sexual nature of the sidelong glance of a halved strawberry, it’s aphrodisiacal qualities, but it is our singing taste buds that elevate this berry to heavenly status.  An actual burst occurs in your mouth with a well sun-ripened specimen, just the right amount of acidity with that unmistakable taste.  God’s own bon-bon.  And I haven’t even mentioned the wild variety.  The flavour packed into the little crazies you see topping my desserts here...well, Willy Wonka himself would scratch his head in wonder.  Where did I get them?  Never you mind, but Devon I swear.  

Timing, flavour, what about the fact that they are wholly unique in the entire fruit world?  Technically they are known as an ‘accessory fruit’.  The seeds which, unlike those of any other, are on the outside and are the true fruits of the plant.  Huh?  The fleshy ‘berry’ to which they are attached is an enlarged, softened receptacle, corresponding to the small, white cone connected to the stem.  This cluster of dry fruit seeds is described in Radio 4 circles as an ‘etaerio of achenes’ as opposed to the raspberry’s ‘etaerio of druplets’.  Of course.  Thank-you Alan Davidson.
So, how to eat them.  Straight up with a little caster sugar stirs my boyhood memories.  The sugar acting as a seasoning, bringing out the flavour even more.  The Wimbledon way, with cream, one can never go wrong.  The North American strawberry shortcake is a winner, or a touch of sophistication from the continent, macerated in red wine.  Preserves, The Devon Cream Tea, the list is fairly exhaustive.  However you indulge, just make sure they are served at room temperature, like a good tomato; fridge cold is pointless and painful on the teeth.  Also, dipping in chocolate is a no-no.  Doesn’t work.  Tastes horrible.  White ‘chocolate’ yes, dark, no.  Personally, I don’t think they can be beat with a just-whipped vanilla cream or panna cotta.  Fragaria lend themselves to dairy so well.
‘Doubtless God could have made a better berry, doubtless God never did.’
-William Allen Butler

Panna Cotta & Strawberries
Serves 5

600ml Double cream
150ml Milk
150g Caster sugar
3 Leaves Gelatine, soaked in cold water
1tbsp Marsala
1 Vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped
Fresh Devon strawberries at room temperature

  1. Place the cream, milk, sugar, marsala and vanilla in a saucepan.
  2. Bring to a boil, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the gelatine.
  3. Pass through a fine sieve and pour into dariole moulds.
  4. Refrigerate until set.
  5. Turn out onto a plate by dipping the mould in boiling water for a few seconds.
  6. Garnish with sliced strawberries and strawberry sauce (optional).

Merlot Strawberries, Vanilla Cream & Black Pepper
Serves 6

600ml Quality merlot
5tbsp Caster sugar
¼ tsp Freshly ground or crushed black pepper
600gm Fresh Devon strawberries, quartered
300ml Double cream
½ Vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped

1. Place the red wine, sugar and black pepper in a bowl and stir to dissolve the sugar.
2. Add the strawberries and let macerate for 30 minutes.
3. Whip the cream and vanilla.
3. To serve, divide among six wine glasses or champagne flutes and dollop with cream.
As seen in Devon Life Magazine, August 2011

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