How can such a small fruit embody so much for us? How can it possibly give the atmospherically pessimistic English such hope for an Actual Summer? The short natural season of 6 weeks between late June and mid-August does coincide with our miserably short but currently quite nice summer in the UK, which would explain some of our infatuation.
Originally cultivated in Brittany, northern France, the strawberry is a cross between something from Chile and something else from the environs of Virginia, USA. Over the years, it has changed from the small, slightly disappointing but very cute woodland strawberry to the protuberant giants we see in the shops today.
The highest strawberry-producing country is, surprisingly for a country that is not famed for eating fruit, the USA. In 2011 they produced a whopping 1,312,960 tons of strawberries. Unfortunately for our amusement, there doesn’t seem to be any information about how much (or how little) of those 1.3 million tons were actually eaten by Americans.
Strawberries, apart from being delicious, also contain potassium, zinc, and fibre, and eight strawberries will give you about as much Vitamin C as a whole orange. The cooking possibilities with strawberries are virtually endless; you can be as creative as you dare. You can incorporate it into a savoury meal making a tangy strawberry and orange sauce to serve with duck, go French and make a tarte aux fraises, or just slice them over your cereal.
One of the classic English recipes of summer involving strawberries is the inimitable Eton Mess. Traditionally served after cricket matches to restore the equanimity between Eton and its only really posh rival, Harrow, you can quite literally make this if the only utensils you have to hand are a bowl and a shovel. A whisk is also useful, although in the absence of a whisk, cheat and use canned cream. Revolting for some, irresistible for others.
Eton Mess is also a great way of covering up a pavlova gone wrong. No need for whole meringues here. You can either make your own meringues or take the easy route, and buy some. Since they’re going to be crushed up, it seems a waste to take the effort to make them yourself. You can also add ice cream for a cooler pudding.
400ml double cream
3-4 ready-made meringues
1. Gently crush the meringues into pieces, but not crumbs. Whip the cream into stiff peaks, so that when you take the whisk out, the peak left by the whisk stays there solidly.
2. Mash about ¼ of the strawberries, and roughly chop the rest.
3. Fold the crushed meringue and all the strawberries gently into the cream (save a few strawberries for the top), and add any extra flavours you feel fitting – ginger syrup, port, caramel, a dash of peppermint essence (a very small dash) or even pudding wine.
4. If you’re serving a dinner party, then dollop it artfully into wine glasses and garnish with a sprig of mint and reserved strawberries. If you’re just feeding, place it all in a large bowl in the middle of the table, and provide spoons. The person to get full first loses.