I hear that there may be a strawberry shortage thanks to our rotten excuse for a Summer. This is a little worrying as I have a personal strawberry shortage to contend with which is due to the local mouse population taking a fancy to my crop. As soon as one of the berries reaches the point of ripe perfection, shining and bright red, they strike.
I have to say that, much as I enjoy strawberries, I consider raspberries to be in every way superior. This is possibly because I was brought up with a forest of raspberry canes in the garden and the taste of Summer was a dish of dark red berries mashed, with the back of a fork, into some pouring cream and a spoonful of sugar.
But strawberries are pretty good, even if some modern varieties are light on flavour and have the texture of a turnip. Supermarkets and commercial growers have, however, been lisening to us punters complaining and flavour, by and large, seems to be better than it was, say, a decade a ago. They certainly smell more intensely and a whiff of ripe strawberry, even on the darkest July day, is the fragrance of summer.
Strawberries and cream (especially clotted cream) is unbeatable. And if the fruit is ripe enough, there’s no need for sugar.
Strawberries at their best need no help beyond that. But if they need a boost, consider marinating them in a little vodka with some caster sugar, or in orange juice with a few twists, bizarre as it may seem, of black pepper.
But of course, the ultimate strawberry indulgence is something that every restaurant seems to do (usually badly) these days and one which originated in one of the most famous schools in the world.
Flying into Heathrow a while back I noticed that we were coming in low over Eton, an institution that is hard to miss as it surely has the grandest school chapel in the world. Down below I could clearly see the the sports fields known as Agar’s Plough dotted with tiny white figures and I wondered if they would later be tucking in to one of the simplest and most delicious desserts in the world.
This is Eton Mess which, according to legend, was first served at the school tuck shop in the 1930s. Originally, it was just whipped cream mixed with crushed strawberries and icing sugar but later it evolved into a wicked mixture with the addition of mashed-up meringues.
This is the version with which I like to celebrate the strawberry season but certain traditions must be observed. Firstly, you don’t add sugar because there’s plenty in the meringues. Secondly, the cream should be thick but not whipped to the point where it forms what the cookbooks call 'stiff peaks'. Thirdly, when you combine the fruit, meringues and cream you should let it stand for no more than 10 minutes, otherwise it will lose texture. (But, it has to be admitted that there are those who like very mature Eton Mess, in which the meringues have dissolved and merged with the cream).
The word 'mess' is not as obvious as it may seem. It certainly looks like a bit of a mess but the phrase refers to the tradition where Eton boys used to take tea together (often baked beans on toast) in one of their rooms. Eton is unique in giving every boy, however junior, his own room and having friends in to eat used to be known as 'messing'.
Health and safety concerns mean, however, that this fine old tradition is now a thing of the past.
These days you can buy strawberries all the year round while in the past they were available only during the Summer 'half' as terms are called, rather perversely, at Eton. During the rest of the year, Eton Mess was made with bananas and if the fruit is ripe enough (freckles on the skin are the infallible indicator of this) it’s not bad but very, very sweet.
WEBSITE OF THE WEEK:
Some berry interesting facts.