First published Canberra Times 2 November2011
A sure sign that summer is on its way is the arrival of the berry sellers at the Capital Region Farmer’s Markets. Although you can buy strawberries in Canberra all year round from supermarkets, they are generally not from our local area and surrounds.
I prefer the smaller, more compact, sweet strawberries, to the large misshapen and watery ones. Call me suspicious, but it looks as if they’ve been force-fed with growth hormones. The other thing I love is buying them in a brown paper bag, rather than a plastic punnet, because the strawberry smell leaks through the bag.
On my last trip to France, I discovered the name of the amazingly perfumed little berries that are so prolific over there. They are called Gariguettes, and famously hail from the southwest of France. The first taste is a revelation. The beautiful thing about French strawberries is that you will smell them before you see them, so just follow your nose. It’s a complete sensory experience.
In France, strawberries are mostly grown on slopes and hand picked. It takes three years to train a picker to cut the fruit at the right place and at the peak of its ripeness. Interestingly, women do the bulk of the picking. Perhaps, as a female neighbor in Chatenois suggested, it’s because it’s a work of patience and rigor?
The work-day begins at 7:00am with an obligatory café-au-lait and stops for lunch at midday. The berry gathering ends around 4:00pm to get the fruit to the market as quickly as possible.
During my cooking classes in Beaune earlier this year, we made mountains of Gariguette strawberry jam. The strawberries were bought from the berry seller’s market stall earlier that morning, right outside the door. We made jam all day, using the traditional French method. I left there smelling of sweet, sticky, strawberry jam that was still lingered in my clothes and hair well into the night.
The classic French way to eat a bowl of these gorgeous globes is in salade de fraises - just a bowl of these luscious Gariguettes with sugar and a little lemon juice. Nothing else is needed, although, maybe sitting in a little café on the streets of Paris wouldn’t go astray.
One of my all time favourite summer desserts is Strawberry Mousse. It’s an easy family classic from the 1980’s and comes from my sister Sue Barben, who often served it at summertime dinner parties. I’m not sure where she sourced this recipe from, but it’s worked its way into my favourites’ list.
There’s no cooking required here, so it’s a no fuss dessert for summer or Christmas time. Because this recipe is prepared in advance and set in individual ramekins, it’s ready to go when you need it. All you will need is a blender or food processor. The individual mousses will keep covered in the fridge for 4 to 5 days. One regular punnet of strawberries will make a quantity to serve 4 to 5 people.
I’ve given this recipe a re-vamp and added a rhubarb vino cotto compote with just a hint of cracked pepper, to serve with the mousse. This does need cooking, but, like the mousse, can also be prepared in advance. Any left over compote goes beautifully with Greek yoghurt, honey and roasted almonds for brekky.
If you don’t feel like cooking the compote, serve the mousse with a dollop of honey-sweetened mascarpone or yoghurt.
½ cup castor sugar
1 ¼ cups fresh cream
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/3 cup boiling water
2 tspn powdered gelatin
2 egg whites
1 vanilla bean, scraped or ¼ tspn vanilla paste
Wash and hull the strawberries. Place the strawberries, lemon juice, sugar, vanilla paste and cream into a blender or food processor.
Place the boiling water into a small bowl, add the gelatine, stirring until dissolved.
Add the gelatine to the blender, and mix on medium speed until combined. This should only take a few seconds.
Whisk the egg whites in a separate and clean bowl until peaks form. Fold the strawberry mixture gently into the whites until combined.
Pour into 4 to 5 ramkeins and chill until set. This should take a 3 hours or so.
6 stalks of rhubarb, washed and chopped (no leaves)
3 tbsp icing sugar
2 tbsp of vino cotto, (you could use 1 ½ tbsp balsamic vinegar instead, just increase the sugar content)
¼ cup boiling water
cracked black pepper
Preheat the oven to 180C. Prepare a baking tray lined with baking paper. Spread the rhubarb in one layer on the tray and dust with 2 tbsp of icing sugar. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes.
Remove the rhubarb from the oven and place in a small saucepan. Add the remaining icing sugar, boiling water and vino cotto (or balsamic vinegar and extra sugar) and a good pinch of cracked black pepper. Taste for sweetness, you may need to add a little more sugar.
Heat on medium heat, uncovered for a few minutes until the mixture turns syrupy.
The flavour balance should be piquant, but slightly sweet. Serve the compote on top of the strawberry mousse.
Photos by Steve Shanahan