Sunday, 12 June 2011

Strawberry season

Washed, hulled, and ready to use.

The strawberries were early this year. As I mentioned previously, I picked my first on the last day of May, but for me (based on average conditions round here), June is the time for these fruits. That's when they are in full swing, producing handfuls a day from my patch of a couple of dozen plants. I grow four or five kinds, although the labels I carefully placed next to each plant when they went in three years ago have long since disappeared, and they've multiplied so much (sending out runners despite my best efforts at control) I now just treat them all the same. For the record, there are 'Honeoye', 'Cambridge Favourite', 'Hapil' (I think labelled as 'Happil' when I bought it), and 'Rhapsody' (but I'm not 100% sure of that last one). I wanted a range, partly to mitigate against disease, partly to give a longer season. In fact, the sizes, shapes, shades of red, and flavours are all very distinct - a strawberry is not a strawberry is not a strawberry.

The plants are meant to be replaced every three years, which gives me an opportunity to move the bed - it's currently on a terrace of the slope in the back garden, south-facing, on enriched clay soil. They thrive here, but I need the space for something else. I will ditch the gooseberry planted with them, which has never done well. I'll probably put them in raised beds I'm planning on building by the side of the house, which is a tough spot, being quite shady and cool. Maybe not so ideal for ripening, but I'll keep some in pots, too, to hedge my bets. I need the current fruit bed for vegetables, which I care more about now, and which will really benefit from the aspect of that location. I probably won't buy any more plants, because there are enough self-spread across the garden to provide for my needs - I'll just dig them up later in the year and relocate them.

Anyway, this year is providing the largest harvest ever, so the bed is certainly mature. As for earliness, I have a photo from last year of my strawberries from the 20th of June - and although it may not be of the first fruits, it's clear that they are indeed (as I may have said before) around two weeks early. There are many more fruits still on the plants, although blooming finished over a week ago, so I expect to be picking some for the next fortnight or so - perhaps till the end of the month. Thankfully, a bumper crop of raspberries will take over - the first fruits have started turning red, which is early again (I think of raspberries as more of a July crop), but around two weeks after the first strawberries, which is about right.

But what to do with this bounty? Well, first of all, enjoy it! The process of searching through the fruit patch, looking under leaves for bright red (or in my case, blush pink*) fruits is exciting, and very pleasant in warm summer sunshine (today, in the cold driving rain, it was not so fun). Eating them, perfectly ripe, unadulterated, is a simple, but satisfying pleasure. You could do the cream-and-sugar thing (I've never been a fan), or use them in a smoothie or cocktail (I find they work well, puréed, with bourbon). Or make a basic custard, blitz strawberries, pass through a sieve and/or muslin, combine, and freeze in an ice cream machine (or however you prefer to make it), maybe adding chopped strawberries, or a coulis, to really enhance the flavour.

With less-than-perfect, or slightly unripe fruits, try this: chop them quite finely, dust with fine sugar, drizzle with the best balsamic vinegar you can find, and if you like, some fresh, coarsely-ground black pepper, cover, and refrigerate overnight. Serve over vanilla ice cream, or with mascarpone. The strawberry flavour is much enhanced. I never used to like the idea of this, but it really works.

A pound of strawberries, waiting to be turned into syrup...

...and the finished product.

*I have to pick my strawberries a little before they are perfectly ripe, otherwise they get eaten by culprits unknown (probably slugs and snails). They turn deep red indoors in a day or two.

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