Cream of the crop
English strawberries are at their peak right now, so make the most of them
The Wimbledon finals take place this weekend which means, as always, that strawberries will be on the menu, both at the All England Club (at an extortionate price) and just about everywhere else. English strawberries are as much a part of British summer as the tournament itself - and the rain that normally accompanies it.
However, the passion for eating strawberries is neither new nor particularly British. Strawberries have quite a history attached to them dating back more than 2,000 years.
They were first eaten in Italy, where they grew wild. The ancient Romans loved them but, after the fall of Rome, their popularity declined. Not until the Middle Ages did strawberries regain their popularity, this time across all of Europe. The Europeans saw the strawberry not so much as a delicious treat but as a food that could help with depression, fainting, inflammation, fevers, throat infections, kidney stones, and many other sicknesses. Its leaves and roots were used for gout. Over the years strawberries were used for skin rashes, sunburn, discolouration of teeth and digestive orders. In the 13th century, strawberries were widely used as an aphrodisiac.
There is also a legend that says if you find a double strawberry you should break it in half and share it with a member of the opposite sex. It is said you will fall in love with each other - I have my doubts.
The name strawberry is believed to derive from "strewn berry"; itself derived from the Anglo-Saxon verb to strew or spread - the fruit is normally found strewn among the leaves of the plants. With the passing of time, the term strewn berry gradually came to be pronounced colloquially as strawberry.
Medieval stonemasons carved strawberry designs on altars and around the tops of pillars in churches and cathedrals, symbolising perfection and righteousness. In the same period, strawberries were served at important state occasions and festivals to ensure peace and prosperity.
There is even a Jewish connection. They are a popular fruit in Israel, grown mainly for the export market and the late Prime Minister Golda Meir indicated their importance to the economy with her famous statement. "We do not rejoice in victories. We rejoice when strawberries bloom in Israel."
On a nutritional note, strawberries are recognised as having more vitamin C than some citrus fruits. They are also high in fibre, potassium and antioxidants, making them a natural means of reducing the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and certain cancers.
But you will not have much time to enjoy the unique flavour and texture of the beloved English strawberry as the season is relatively short - normally from mid-June to the beginning of August.
So make the most of it…
Strawberries with shortbread
Preparation time: 25 minutes plus 2½ hours chilling
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Serves 6 people
For the strawberries:
● 50g strawberries - hulled and cut in half
● 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
● 4 tablespoons dry red wine
● 2 tablespoons icing sugar
For the biscuits:
● 225g unsalted butter/margarine
● 110g caster sugar
● 225g plain flour
● 110g rice flour or ground rice
● pinch of salt
● 2 teaspoons vanilla essence
● 2 tablespoons golden
● granulated sugar – for dusting
For the garnish:
● 150 ml double cream - whisked until thick
● 1 tablespoon icing sugar - for dusting
● Marinate the strawberries by mixing all the ingredients together and leave for a minimum of 2 hours or overnight.
● Pre-heat the oven to 190°C/375°F/ gas mark 5.
● Cream together the butter and sugar in a food processor. Slowly add the flour, rice, pinch of salt and vanilla essence and whizz together until it forms a ball.
● Roll the dough into a sausage shape, 5cm
(2 inches) thick, wrap in
cling, and refrigerate for
half an hour.
● Lightly cover the work surface with golden granulated sugar.
● Unwrap the cling film and roll in the sugar. Slice the roll into 10mm (1/2 inches) thick discs.
● Line a baking sheet with baking parchment paper and transfer the discs.
● Bake for 25 minutes or until golden.
● To serve: place some whipped cream on top of the shortbread biscuits, and sit some strawberries on top of that.
● Dust with some icing sugar just before serving.