Saturday, 16 July 2016

Sweet-sour berries

My Strawberries Balsamic

The 18th century French philosopher Diderot described strawberries as being like 'the tip of wet-nurses' breasts'.  Thankfully he was referring to small wild strawberries, the large cultivated varieties we mostly eat today being some way in the future.  I owe this knowledge to Jane Grigson, who in every chapter of her Fruit Book serves up exquisite gems of information that add enrichment to the recipes she offers.  Recipes including classics such as Strawberries Romanov, Strawberry Shortcake and Soupe aux Fraises.  But, this time, I turned to Jane Grigson not for one of those recipes but rather for that 'gem' to lead me in to a dish I tasted in America two decades ago.  I loved it so much as soon as I got home I recreated it and have been making it every summer since.

I'm sure I'm telling you nothing you don't already know in saying strawberries benefit from a little added acidity - wine, lemon or orange juice all help to bring out their flavour.  Strawberries with vinegar seemed like a step too far when I first visited San Francisco a couple of decades ago and tasted them married with syrupy, sweet/sour balsamic vinegar.  Later I learned that in Emilia Romagna, the home of Aceto Balsamic production, they had been flavouring strawberries with it for decades.  Bringing things right up to date, Modena chef Massimo Bottura recommends aged balsamic to season not only strawberries but peaches and cherries too.

Strawberry munching slug

The very best Aceto Balsamico is made from a reduction of pressed white Trebbiano grapes aged for 12, 18 or 25 years (or even more) to a thick, dark viscous syrup and is, not surprisingly, expensive. Cheaper  'balsamic vinegar' exists but it's likely to have been made from wine vinegar thickened with guar gum or cornflour and enriched and coloured with caramel.  They are different beasts but all have their place, I guess.

The fact I still have strawberries on my allotment patch (the slugs, thankfully, having lost interest) and that the raspberry canes are now fruiting abundantly means the time has come to make this recipe again.   The good people of Emilia Romagna may not approve of including raspberries in the mix, and what Massimo Bottura would think I don't know, but this recipe is based on a particular memory of two decades ago, and raspberries were certainly involved.  So, I can't call this a classic but it is a recipe that takes me back to that first visit to San Franciso. It's also particularly good for perking up less than perfect strawberries - something we growers are well acquainted with.  

First pickings of the year
Raspberries on the allotment

My Strawberries Balsamic

(serves 4-6)

About 1kg (2lb) strawberries
100g (4 oz) raspberries
50g (2 oz) caster sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons water

Clean and hull the strawberries and put in a large bowl.
Put the raspberries and sugar in a bowl suspended over a pan of simmering water. Cook until the sugar dissolves and the fruit breaks up.  Remove the bowl from the heat, blitz briefly with a hand blender and sieve out the raspberry pips.  Mix in the balsamic and the water.
Pour the raspberry syrup over the strawberries and mix gently to coat the strawberries.  Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours before serving.

I think this needs nothing else.