Sunday, 15 May 2011

Strawberry days are booming

There can be few single things more redolent of an English summer than strawberries. And at the same time, few things are more generally disappointing these days.

Even when you play the seasonality game and wait until British fruits are in the shops, all too often, they’re a pale shadow of what your memory tells you they should be like.

I’ve had a few punnets already this year – the early warmth means a bumper crop – but none of them have beaten the ones we had yesterday. A 400g box for £1.50 from our local organic shop.

There was no label, so I don’t know what variety they are, and while some of them might have fitted the supermarket looks and shape criteria, some most certainly would not have.

But one thing was certain – taste they had by the bucketload. Lucious gems; juicy and sweet, yet with just a touch of acidity.

I went back up Broadway Market this morning and bought more. Because when you have such a chance, at that sort of price, it’s a shame to waste it.

Now I know that Waitrose is not the cheapest supermarket chain around – although these days, they boast that they can match the price of Tesco on many items – but today, its ‘essential’ (cheapest range) strawberries are £1.99 for 400g, organic strawberries are £2.99 for 250g and a 400g pack of ‘speciality’ strawberries is £3.99.

They’re ‘special’, because they’re “Driscoll® Magdalena™” (I kid you not), a new variety from California that is apparently “picked for its fine quality, intensely sweet flavour and classic shape”, according to the website of Ocado, which delivers Waitrose goods in areas that the supermarket itself does not yet cover.

As Joanna Blythman points out in Shopped: the shocking power of Britain’s supermarkets, supermarkets will charge you a premium for flavour.

And such a statement also effectively admits that the store's other strawberries are not picked for their "fine quality, intensely sweet flavour and classic shape".

But putting that aside for the moment, what was I going to do with an extra 800g of great-value fruit?

Easy. I planned to make ice cream. Well, I was actually contemplating making gelato, an Italian ice cream with a custard base. My big, basic Italian cookbook had recipes for both lemon and coffee gelato and I’d been hovering between the two when contemplating yesterday morning’s shopping expedition.

But then, what with everything else that was going on, that had been put on hold. In the evening, however, we’d had a bowl of strawberries with cream, and an idea took shape.

Now I’ve never been a fan of strawberry ice cream – mostly because it always seems to taste so artificial, so completely unlike the real deal.

Which given its popularity as an ice cream flavour, possibly says something about how denuded our tastebuds have become in general over recent decades.

Before we visited Venice last year, I read somewhere that, while Italians most certainly know how to make ice cream, even there, there is good stuff and less-than-good stuff.

The article gave a hint: if you’re visiting an ice cream parlour, look for the banana flavour. If it’s a vibrant yellow, it’s an artificial flavour.

If it’s a sort of grey-white, it’ll be a very natural flavour.

Who’d want to eat ice cream that looked a bit gray? But then again, if you think about it, what makes us think of yellow in terms of a banana is inedible.

We have developed ideas about what colours look edible – even when we’d never think twice while actually peeling and eating a real banana.

The garden strawberry was first bred in France in the 18th century – a cross between varieties from North and South America.

There are many varieties – and many of them are better than the ubiquitous Elsanta, which might keep well and look good by supermarket standards, but almost always tastes incredibly bland.

Only a few days ago, I was reading an article where the question was even asked as to whether it’s true that sugar is sometimes pumped into the fruits to make them sweeter.

Now, I don’t know whether there’s any truth in this, but the thought is a dreadful one. What a crazy world when you grow something so poorly that you then have to inject it with something else to make it taste more as it should.

But let’s get back to the ice cream.

It couldn’t be easier. After browsing the internet briefly, I opted for a James Martin recipe.

Take 600g of hulled, sliced strawberries and blitz them to a purée.

Take 600ml of double cream and mix with 280g of caster sugar.

Mix the purée into that.

Martin's recipe uses an ice cream maker, but it's perfectly easy without one. Just decant into a container (mine made over a litre) and pop in the freezer. After an hour, get it out and fork around to make sure you don’t get any ice crystals. Repeat until fully frozen.

In mine, I stirred in a few extra, diced strawberries just at the end. After all, it's difficult to have too much real strawberry goodness.

Goethe apparently said: "One must ask children and birds how cherries and strawberries taste."

But they're not a childish or frivolous food – like so many other fruits, for instance, they have vast nutritional value and are an antioxidant. And for sheer taste, the 'natural' ones are the best by far.

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