Every year in late June and early July it is strawberry season. For a few brief weeks, fresh, local strawberries are available in shops and markets, or at “U-pick” farms where the public can go and pick strawberries. I have been picking strawberries since childhood. Every year I make the trek out to a U-pick farm to fill my baskets with plump, red fruit. And of course one has to test a few of the fruit while picking…
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights detail of strawberry, c. 1500, oil on panel. Prado Museum, Madrid.
Strawberries have been eaten since at least the Middle Ages. They famously appear in the fantastical and bizarre earthly realm in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights triptych. The strawberries that we eat (and pick) are actually a hybrid developed in the 18th century from of North and South American varieties of the plant. Wild varieties are still found in forests in Europe and North America today.
Unfortunately, this year’s strawberry season was quite short, as we had a long stretch of extremely hot and dry weather. Most berries were small, but still sweet and delicious to eat and cook with!
With baskets of fresh berries, I rarely do anything too radical. I prefer to eat my berries plain, with sugar, or with cake and whipped cream. Living in the UK introduced me to the Eton Mess, which is gloriously delicious but utterly lazy. Mounds of whipped cream with crumbled meringue and juicy berries. What could be easier to prepare? You can make Eton Mess with any sort of fresh berry, really, but strawberries are ideal for me. Eton Mess works well as a dessert for a large group of people–as last year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery showed–but it also is a great dessert for single servings. It’s best eaten immediately after assembly.
Eton is so simple to make you almost don’t even need a recipe (but if you do, Nigella has one here). Basically, hull and half your strawberries, then macerate with a bit of brown sugar. Meanwhile, beat your whipped cream (about 1/4 to 1/3 cup per person), add in a couple tablespoons of white sugar and 1 tsp vanilla. To the whipped cream mixture, fold in crushed meringue (about 1 meringue nest per person), and then fold in 3/4 of the macerated berries. Top each dish with the remainder of the strawberries, and enjoy!
This year I was also determined to make a batch of strawberry jam. I hadn’t made a batch in a few years, and I had far too many berries to eat all myself. Strawberry jam is a classic–delicious on toast, with peanut butter, and even spread on soda crackers (as one of my colleagues is wont to do). For strawberry jam, I follow the strict instructions that come in a packet of Certo pectin. Jam can be tricky if you try to stray from the instructions, but this year’s strawberry jam turned out well!