We moved from a small seaside town to the countryside when I was nine. It was the end of rockpools, ice-cream parlours and paper bags of dried seaweed – dulse – to eat while walking along the prom.
We did have neighbours, so the new place wasn’t totally isolated, but the area was quite cut off. Both neighbours were elderly and kept beautiful gardens. Mrs Clark, her hair escaping from her hastily arranged bun, showed us the most tactile flowers she grew. I loved the grey ones that felt like rabbit’s ears. Mr Matthews, on the other side, was gruff. We couldn’t run freely around his garden. He was still ‘planting and considering’. I felt there were things I wasn’t supposed to see; nothing sinister, maybe just flowers with tiny jewels among their stamens.
I noticed, spying by the fence one day, flashes of red in the bed that lay alongside. I knew that I’d be in big trouble if I was discovered – Mr Matthews could set his constantly dribbling hound, Boris, on me – but curiosity won the day and I climbed over the sagging part of the fence to check under the leaves. He had planted a huge bed of strawberries. I’d never seen them growing before and was as enchanted as I would have been on finding a patch of pumpkins already transformed into carriages. The berries were red with green-tinged shoulders by the calyx. The most intense strawberry experience I could get, without picking and eating them, was to smell them. I lay down at the edge of the bed and breathed in years of summers.
Picking up cardboard punnets from roadside stalls was a huge treat. You had to be alert to spot the stalls and then ask for them in the right way (not shoutily or greedily). If you got a trip to the sea, a strawberry mivvi and a punnet of strawberries on the same day, you had everything. Our car smelt of strawberries and suntan lotion all summer.
You didn’t want anything fancy with the first strawberries; just cream and – once I’d had it in a Scottish guest house there was no going back – a dusting of icing sugar from a special glass shaker. It’s become a cliché that strawberries don’t taste as good as they once did, but when you bought them from roadside stalls the seller didn’t have to think about shelf life. The strawberries he sold were at the peak of both ripeness and sweetness. He wanted them all gone by 8pm. You can still track down good strawberries (at farm shops and pick-your-own farms) and occasionally one of the supermarkets decides to stock a beautifully flavoured variety, such as Gariguette.
Now that I’ve told you strawberries are best eaten in the simplest way, I’m going to backtrack; by the middle of the season I wrack my brain for new things to do with them. This is just the cook in me, wanting to try the unexpected, the new.
For years I bought an Australian food magazine called Gourmet Traveller. They were fond of pairing strawberries with the Asian ingredients that were easy to get hold of, at least in Sydney. Mangoes, lime leaves, coconut, lemongrass – they were all smooching with strawberries. I used to be dismissive. ‘Strawberries with lime and coconut,’ I would mutter to myself, ‘I don’t think so.’
But strawberries benefit from acidic partners, as long as they themselves are sweet. Passion fruit is knockout with them – my preferred Eton Mess is made with passion fruit and strawberries – and lime squeezed over sweet ripe strawberries provides what you get in the best tomatoes, sweetness with a lick of acidity.
This summer I’ve gone all out; there’s no Eton Mess here. These dishes, though, should only be made once you’ve had your fill of strawberries and cream.
Strawberry varieties to buy
These will ripen in different months, so won’t all be available at the same time. It’s a good idea to contact pick-your-own (PYO) farms to see what they have before you plan a trip.
A French variety and a great favourite with chefs. It has a heavenly floral scent and flavour. The yield, compared with modern varieties, is low, and the fruit is soft, which is why we don’t see them more often. It fruits in June.
An early variety which is ripe, given enough sun, from June. The last time I visited a PYO farm it was one of my favourites. It tastes like the strawberries we all claim to remember.
Regarded as one of the best ‘all-round’ varieties, it’s sweet, bright red and a good cropper. It fruits from late June to mid-July.
Florence strawberries – with their sweet flavour and deep colour – are gorgeous. It’s a big cropper and formidably disease-resistant. Look for it in late summer.
Bred in East Malling, at the horticultural research centre where many British strawberry varieties were born. It’s juicy as well as sweet and fruits in June-July.
One of the best-loved varieties in the country. Honeyedness is cut with acidity, and there’s a touch of pine. Both gardeners and growers like it as the berries are juicy, well flavoured and disease-resistant. A heavy cropper, it fruits in June-July.
Strawberries and mangoes with lime leaves and coconut shortbread
This can be quite simple or, if you serve it with ice cream as well (there are good coconut ones you can buy, and Waitrose does a gorgeous coconut and lime ice cream), a bit more fancy. The coconut shortbread is wonderful – it has a lovely snap.
Prep time: 1 hour, plus chilling time
Cook time: 20 minutes
6 (makes 12 pieces of shortbread)
For the shortbread
115g butter, at room temperature
70g caster sugar
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lime
40g desiccated coconut
135g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
Icing sugar, for dusting
For the fruit
2 fresh lime leaves
2 medium-sized, perfectly ripe mangoes
450g strawberries, hulled
To serve (optional)
Coconut or coconut and lime ice cream
Toasted shaved coconut
To make the shortbread, beat the butter and caster sugar together until slightly fluffy. Add the zest and beat it in. Add the juice, a little at a time, then the coconut and flour. Beat briefly then pull the dough together and shape it into a disc. Wrap in cling film and put in the fridge for an hour.
Make the syrup for the fruit. Remove the zest of two limes with a zester. Put this in a small bowl. Cover with cling film. Finely grate the zest of another two limes and put this in a saucepan with the juice of five limes, the lime leaves, 375ml water and the sugar. Slowly bring up to the boil, stirring to help the sugar dissolve. Boil for 10 minutes, until you can see that it’s getting slightly syrupy (it will get thicker as it cools). Leave to cool, then strain and chill.
Roll the shortbread dough out on a lightly floured surface to the thickness of a £1 coin. Line two baking sheets with baking paper. Stamp out rounds using a 6cm cutter, rolling up the remnants of the dough so you can make more. As each round is ready, put it on the baking paper, leaving some room between each piece. Put the baking sheets in a very cold fridge and leave for an hour. Heat the oven to 190C/180C fan/gas mark 5.
Put the sheets into the middle of the oven. Cook for 10 minutes. Leave to cool for 10 minutes, then remove the shortbread to a wire cooling rack. When cool, sift on some icing (or caster) sugar.
Peel the mangoes and cut the cheeks off – these are the bits that lie alongside the stone. Keep the extra flesh for a smoothie.
Slice the cheeks – about the thickness of a £1 coin – and put the slices into a broad, shallow bowl. Slice the strawberries – about the same thickness as the mango slices – lengthways. Add these to the mangoes. Pour over the syrup and chill for 15 minutes. If you leave it for longer, the fruit gets too soft.
Scatter on the zest you set aside earlier. Serve with the coconut shortbread and, if you like, some ice cream. Scatter the ice cream with toasted shaved coconut, if using, or leave it plain.
Strawberries, jelly and custard, or strawberry ‘coupe’
I had a dessert very similar to this at Noble Rot in Bloomsbury, but it was made with rhubarb. The layers and the swirl of custard on top made it seem full of fun, like a sundae. Noble Rot’s pastry chef, Kate O’Sullivan, has allowed me to steal the concept and make it with strawberries.
Prep time: 30 minutes, plus chilling and freezing time
Cook time: 40 minutes
For the jelly
17g leaf gelatin (about 10 small sheets)
185g granulated sugar
475ml rosé wine
For the granita
60g granulated sugar
60ml light, fruity red wine, such as Valpolicella or Beaujolais
300g ripe, intensely flavoured strawberries, hulled and chopped
Lemon juice (optional)
For the custard
250ml whole milk
50g caster sugar
3 egg yolks
10g plain flour
1 tsp vanilla extract
75ml double cream
For the strawberries
30 well-flavoured medium-sized strawberries, hulled
1 tbsp caster sugar
To make the jelly, put the gelatin in a bowl and cover it with cold water. Leave for about five minutes. The gelatin must be completely soft.
Heat the sugar and 200ml water together, stirring a little to help the sugar dissolve. Remove from the heat. Wait until the syrup is hand-hot, then lift the gelatin out of the bowl, squeeze out the excess water and add to the water and sugar mixture. Stir until the gelatin has melted. It’s important that the syrup is the right temperature – too hot and it will impair the gelatin’s setting qualities, too cold and it won’t melt the gelatin. Add the rosé. You should have about 800ml liquid.
Divide the jelly between eight glasses, leaving room for some strawberries, granita and the custard. You don’t have to use all the jelly. Put the glasses in a roasting tin so you can transfer them to the fridge. Leave the jellies to set. You will need 24 hours.
To make the granita, put the sugar in a saucepan with the red wine and 30ml water, and heat gently, stirring to help the sugar dissolve. Boil for two minutes, then add the strawberries. Take the pan off the heat. Leave for five minutes just so the strawberries get a little warm (though you don’t want them to taste like jam). Whizz the strawberries and liquid in a food processor, then sieve the mixture (through a nylon rather than metal sieve). Taste and add a squeeze of lemon if you think it needs it.
Freeze in a shallow container for 4-5 hours, forking the mixture four times during the freezing process to break up the crystals. You want to end up with a mixture that resembles shards of ice.
For the custard, bring the milk to the boil in a saucepan then remove it from the heat immediately. Keep an eye on the pan as milk can boil over very quickly.
Mix the sugar, egg yolks and flours together in a bowl until thoroughly incorporated. Pour a third of the warmed milk over the egg mixture, whisking vigorously until smooth and combined. Pour the egg mixture into the saucepan containing the rest of the milk, and continue to whisk as you set this over a medium heat.
Cook until the mixture thickens, being careful not to let it burn on the bottom. The mixture will go lumpy – don’t worry, just keep whisking until it’s smooth, thick and glossy. Cook gently for another two minutes, then remove from the heat. Add the vanilla.
Put the crème pâtissière in a bowl and cover with cling film – put it right on top of the mixture – to prevent a skin forming. Allow to cool, then put in the fridge until you need it.
Cut the strawberries into slices about the thickness of a £1 coin. Toss with the sugar. Leave to sit for about 15 minutes.
Stir the crème pâtissière to loosen it. Beat the double cream and fold this in. You have to work fast once you start to put the various components together. Put the crème pâtissière – now mixed with cream – into a piping bag fitted with a large star nozzle. Divide the strawberries between the glasses, then spoon some granita on top. Pipe a swirl of custard on to each pudding. If you find it too difficult to handle a piping bag, or don’t have one, spoon a big swirl on top of each pudding. Serve.
Swedish strawberry cake
Swedes love berries and this cake is at the pinnacle of summer eating there. Usually, it’s made with more layers of sponge, but it can become a bit unwieldy. This just has two layers and it’s enough. The custard needs to be thick. It can run down the sides a little but many versions look as if they’re about to collapse.
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
For the sponge
10g butter, melted, plus extra for greasing
Plain flour, for dusting
5 large eggs, separated
275g caster sugar
240g self-raising flour
For the custard filling
125ml whole milk
15g caster sugar
2 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla extract
50ml double cream
285ml double cream
4 tbsp caster sugar
700g strawberries, hulled
Edible flowers (because that’s very Swedish)
Preheat the oven to 180C/170C fan/gas mark 4. Butter and base line two 23cm tins with greaseproof paper. Put some plain flour in each tin, swish it round and tip the excess into a bowl.
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together for 10 minutes, until the mixture is creamy coloured and increased in volume. Still beating, pour five tablespoons of warm water into the mixture.
Whisk the whites with a pinch of salt until you have soft peaks. Fold the whites into the beaten yolks. Sift the flour over the top and fold it in with a large metal spoon. Fold the melted butter in too. Divide the batter evenly between the tins. Bake in the middle of the oven for 20 minutes. The sponges should be starting to come away from the sides of the tins. Leave in the tins for 10 minutes, then carefully turn the cakes out on to a wire rack. Peel off the greaseproof paper.
Make the custard in exactly the same way as the custard for the strawberry ‘coupe’ (it’s a smaller quantity but the method is the same). Put the crème pâtissière in the fridge. When you want to assemble the cake, beat 50ml double cream and fold it into the custard.
Beat 285ml cream with a tablespoon of sugar. This will go on the top of the cake.
Cut the strawberries into halves or quarters, or, if they are very small, leave them whole. Toss the strawberries with the remaining sugar and leave for 15 minutes.
Put the sponge you want to be on the bottom on a plate. Spread the custard over it. The custard shouldn’t be firm, and it should drop over the edges a bit, but I hate these cakes being too messy. Put half the strawberries – or more – on top of the custard. Put the top sponge on. Spread the top with the cream, and decorate with the rest of the strawberries and the edible flowers.
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