With their intense colour, fragrance and glossy dimpled sheen, strawberries never fail to allure. However, as the late garden writer Edward Bunyard stated in The Anatomy of Dessert, "The Strawberry is not everyone's fruit. To some it brings a sudden rash, and to others twinges of rheumatism. This fact must be admitted and faced."
For most of us, though, strawberries are a quintessential summer treat, despite their year-round availability. As I commented in Healthy Fruit Desserts "Something which passes for strawberries is available most of the year – a far cry from the deep colour and sweet, almost spicy flavour of a good-quality specimen." The situation has marginally improved since I wrote that book, but the very best strawberries still remain hard to find in supermarkets. Rewarding hunting grounds are farm shops and PYO farms. Not overly concerned with shelf life and shipping criteria, they generally stock a wider range of great-tasting varieties, grown in season, picked when fully ripe and at the peak of flavour.
There are literally hundreds of varieties, shapes, sizes, and degrees of hairiness and pip. Look out for 'Gariguette' and 'Mara des Bois', both highly prized in France but also available in the UK. They are exceptionally sweet with an intense strawberry flavour. If you are lucky you might also come across much-coveted jewel-like alpine strawberries, normally found in expensive London food halls with a price tag to match.
Good strawberries are so delicious they hardly need any adornment apart from Wimbledon-style accompaniments – a dusting of caster sugar and some softly whipped cream. Make sure the cream is the best – preferably organic and from contented Jersey cows.
As the season wears on, you might want to experiment with other ideas. How about my show-stopper of a dessert Meringue Roulade with Strawberry, Cucumber and Mint Filling? Or Strawberry Compôte with Tarragon and Orange Zest? Some of you will know that I'm prone to adding black pepper to unlikely dishes. It works really well with strawberries in Strawberry and Black Pepper Ice Cream – as long as you use flavoursome fruit and good-quality peppercorns. Do give it a try.
Another option is to macerate your strawberries in a little sugar, freshly ground black pepper and a dash of traditional balsamic vinegar – the sweet syrupy kind rather than the more acidic thin stuff. A mysterious alchemy takes place as the flavours mellow and meld, resulting in strawberries that taste intensely of themselves with just a hint of something else.
Varieties to look for
• Gariguette', elongated scarlet berries. Prized variety in France, exceptionally
sweet, very soft.
• 'Jubilee', heart-shaped pillar-box red berries. Melt-in-the-mouth texture.
Well-balanced flavour, sweet and aromatic.
• 'Mara des Bois', elongated brick-red berries. Firm juicy flesh, exceptional
sweet wild strawberry flavour.
• 'Marshmello', conical deep red berries. Well-balanced flavour.
• 'Perfection', chubby orange-red berries. Luscious and sweet.
• 'Royal Sovereign', smallish heart-shaped scarlet berries. Superb flavour.
Look for plump glossy fruits with bright green hulls.
If buying in punnets check the fruit underneath for signs of mould or bruising.
Avoid punnets wrapped in cling film. It squashes the fruit and cause bruising.
Don't buy punnets with seepage on the base.
Strawberries are best eaten on the day you buy them.
Avoid storing in the fridge – the chill dulls the flavour. They will last for a day or two if kept away from heat and moisture.
If you must store strawberries in the fridge, resuscitate them in a sunny spot so the warmth gets deep inside the fruit.
Do not wash until ready to serve.
Dunk briefly in water BEFORE hulling, otherwise the berries will ship water at the stem end.
Drain thoroughly and blot dry in a single layer on paper towels.
Bring out the flavour by marinating in a little sugar and lemon juice for 15–30 minutes.
© Christine McFadden, July 2016