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Nigel Slater on... strawberries

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Nigel Slater, TV cook, bestselling cookery author and food columnist for The Observer, has joined the RHS grow your own campaign.

In this series, Nigel focuses on the best produce for growing and cooking

Nigel's strawberry recipes

Discover Nigel's strawberry recipes for July:

Strawberries

Growing his old favourites, and some newcomers, Nigel enjoys these soft berries fresh from the plant, and suggests simple embellishments to enhance the sweetness and flavour of this fruit.

My strawberries are tucked among my vegetable beds, used as markers to show where one crop starts and another finishes. I regard them as pure fun (and there isn’t always enough of that in our life). Lifting the canopy of leaves and finding festoons of berries hanging like jewels fills me with almost childlike joy.

The two allotment-length rows of ‘Cambridge Favourite’ I grew as a teenager not only provided me with an early taste of horticultural success, but a quick lesson in plant nutrition, too. Part of my soft-fruit bed was on the site of an old bonfire, and you could clearly see the difference in the plants that sat over those areas. Those over the site of the old fire were markedly different from the rest of the row, with leaves and fruit almost doubled in size.

Strawberry plants are generally short lived and I replace my plants every four years or so. No matter how well you feed them, they are prone to tire. This is also an opportunity to try out new selections. This year I have added ‘Chelsea Pensioner’ to ‘Gariguette’ and ‘Florence’ – the latter a permanent fixture of this garden for its sweetness and flavour.

I would like to say the first berry of the summer is the best, but early-ripening fruit often lacks the deep sweetness that accompanies the mid- and late season fruit when they have had enough sun. Whether you grow them in a container or in the ground, this is one berry that needs sunshine.

How a strawberry is grown will have much effect on its flavour. Even ‘Elsanta’, the relative robustness of which has made it a favourite choice of the supermarkets, loses its reputation for dullness when it is slow grown in good soil and eaten in its right season. On my clay soil, lightened with plenty of organic matter, I get good strong leaf growth and the first ripe berries by the first week of July.

I net them once fruit appears and before it ripens in an attempt to thwart raiding squirrels who appear to like nothing more than my ripe ‘Florence’.

Minimum embellishment

My early berries tend to be eaten as they come, without the soothing effect of cream or sugar. This is often the case with home-grown produce, which attracts a certain reverence and a desire to enjoy it in its purest form. Once the first few have been eaten as nature intended, then it's time to introduce other ingredients and, in particular, the classic partners of cream and pastry.

Whether it's home-made ice cream or a fruit fool, strawberries and dairy produce have a natural affinity for one another. Cream, yoghurt, crème fraîche and mascarpone all work well with our most popular berry. The quickest of all dairy-based strawberry desserts is probably Eton Mess, where the fruits are lightly crushed with a fork then folded into softly whipped cream and crushed meringue. The crisp meringue shell gives contrast to the soft delights of cream and fruit.

Jam making aside, I would never cook a strawberry. The flavour stays surprisingly constant, but all texture is lost. The berries lose their bite and become a mush. Add to this their loss of colour – they end up a pale rose – and it is easy to see why this cook prefers a hands-off policy. Others tell me they tuck a few into an apple pie or add them to a crumble with good results.

Enhancing natural flavours

Marinating a strawberry in fruit juice will often tease out a shy flavour. Just 20 minutes in a bowl with the juice of a halved passion fruit or a few spoons of freshly squeezed orange juice will make a berry show you what it’s made of. The same goes for a brief squirt of lemon or lime juice.

I never sugar a berry unless I have bought a punnet whose flavour didn’t live up to its looks. Such fruit can be ‘rescued’ with a sprinkling of golden caster sugar and a short spell in a warm room. Even more rewarding is to add a touch of balsamic vinegar. If this sounds off-putting, trust me: the rich, mellow vinegar will be virtually unnoticeable if used in a small enough amount (a teaspoon over a bowl is sufficient for four) but will make your fruit shine in a way that mere sugar alone cannot. It is worth adding a drop or two to top a strawberry ice cream, too.

One way to bring out the subtler notes of strawberries is to take them out of the fridge for a while before you eat them. Cold temperatures dull the flavour of even the ripest berry, and while refrigeration is a sensible way to keep the fruits at their peak, it is always best to give them a good half hour at room temperature before serving. Better still is to eat them in the sun, straight from the plant!

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