We moved from a small seaside town to the countryside when I was nine. It was the end of rockpools, ice-cream parlors and paper bags of dried seaweed – dulse – to eat while walking along the prom.
We did have neighbors, so the new place wasn’t totally isolated, but the area was quite cut off. Both neighbors were elderly and kept beautiful gardens. Mrs Clark, her hair escaping from her hastily arranged bun, showed us the most tactile flowers she grew. I loved the gray ones that felt like rabbit’s ears. Mr Matthews, on the other side, was gruff. We could n’t run freely around his garden from him. He was still ‘planting and considering’. I felt there were things I wasn’t supposed to see; nothing sinister, maybe just flowers with tiny jewels among their stamens.
I noticed, spying by the fence one day, flashes of red in the bed that lay alongside. I knew that I’d be in big trouble if I was discovered – Mr Matthews could set his constantly dribbling hound, Boris, on me – but curiosity won the day and I climbed over the sagging part of the fence to check under the leaves. He had planted a huge bed of strawberries. I’d never seen them growing before and was as enchanted as I would have been on finding a patch of pumpkins already transformed into carriages. The berries were red with green-tinged shoulders by the calyx. The most intense strawberry experience I could get, without picking and eating them, was to smell them. I lay down at the edge of the bed and breathed in years of summers.
Picking up cardboard punnets from roadside stalls was a huge treat. You had to be alert to spot the stalls and then ask for them in the right way (not shoutily or greedily). If you got a trip to the sea, a strawberry mivvi and a punnet of strawberries on the same day, you had everything. Our car smelt of strawberries and suntan lotion all summer.
You didn’t want anything fancy with the first strawberries; just cream and – once I’d had it in a Scottish guest house there was no going back – a dusting of icing sugar from a special glass shaker. It’s become a cliché that strawberries don’t taste as good as they once did, but when you bought them from roadside stalls the seller didn’t have to think about shelf life. The strawberries he sold were at the peak of both ripeness and sweetness. I wanted them all gone by 8pm. You can still track down good strawberries (at farm shops and pick-your-own farms) and occasionally one of the supermarkets decides to stock a beautifully flavored variety, such as Gariguette.
Now that I’ve told you strawberries are best eaten in the simplest way, I’m going to backtrack; by the middle of the season I wrack my brain for new things to do with them. This is just the cook in me, wanting to try the unexpected, the new.
For years I bought an Australian food magazine called Gourmet Traveller. They were fond of pairing strawberries with the Asian ingredients that were easy to get hold of, at least in Sydney. Mangoes, lime leaves, coconut, lemongrass – they were all smooching with strawberries. I used to be dismissive. ‘Strawberries with lime and coconut,’ I would mutter to myself, ‘I don’t think so.’
But strawberries benefit from acidic partners, as long as they themselves are sweet. Passion fruit is knockout with them – my preferred Eton Mess is made with passion fruit and strawberries – and lime squeezed over sweet ripe strawberries provides what you get in the best tomatoes, sweetness with a lick of acidity.
This summer I’ve gone all out; there’s no Eton Mess here. These dishes, though, should only be made once you’ve had your fill of strawberries and cream.
Varieties to look out for
These will ripen in different months, so won’t all be available at the same time. It’s a good idea to contact pick-your-own (PYO) farms to see what they have before you plan a trip.
A French variety and a great favorite with chefs. It has a heavenly floral scent and flavour. The yield, compared with modern varieties, is low, and the fruit is soft, which is why we don’t see them more often. It fruits in June.
An early variety which is ripe, given enough sun, from June. The last time I visited a PYO farm it was one of my favorites. It tastes like the strawberries we all claim to remember.
Regarded as one of the best ‘all-round’ varieties, it’s sweet, bright red and a good cropper. It fruits from late June to mid-July.
Florence strawberries – with their sweet flavor and deep color – are gorgeous. It’s a big cropper and formidably disease-resistant. Look for it in late summer.
Bred in East Malling, at the horticultural research center where many British strawberry varieties were born. It’s juicy as well as sweet and fruits in June-July.
One of the best-loved varieties in the country. Honeyedness is cut with acidity, and there’s a touch of pine. Both gardeners and growers like it as the berries are juicy, well flavored and disease-resistant. A heavy cropper, it fruits in June-July.
Strawberries and mangoes with lime leaves and coconut shortbread
This can be quite simple or, if you serve it with ice cream as well (there are good coconut ones you can buy, and Waitrose does a gorgeous coconut and lime ice cream), a bit more fancy. The coconut shortbread is wonderful – it has a lovely snap.