Sometimes, I feel there should be an official ‘British summer’ checklist. Like with trainspotting or birdwatching, you could tick off the various items as you spot them, aiming for a complete full house before the summer is out. I think it would run something like this:
- Barbecue implements moved to the front aisles of the supermarket
- Signs up on the tube advising people to carry a bottle of water
- Gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants on sale at the supermarket
- The Great British Bake Off on television
- Topless men parading their scarlet sun-scorched flesh around
- Goosepimpled flesh on those who brave the unpredictable climes in a maxidress
- A direct positive correlation between the ambient temperature and how many sausages and beefburgers the shops have sold out of
- Someone bemoaning that the countdown to Christmas has begun
- Girls with their legs out who really shouldn’t have their legs out
- The word ‘heatwave’ in newspaper headlines
Oh, and there’s something else I’ve missed off my list. Strawberries.
It wouldn’t be the British summer without at least one brave attempt at a picnic somewhere. There will, unfailingly, be tubs of supermarket hoummous, lukewarm Pimms, a baguette or two, olives, and a selection of cured meats. There will, of course, also be a punnet of strawberries, for no ‘summer’ picnic is complete without them. Like the chill, the potential for rain and the anticlimax, the strawberry is a stalwart feature of the Great British Picnic.
I sometimes think we go a bit too mad over strawberries. While I have no objection to the heart-shaped scarlet berries, I much prefer raspberries or blackcurrants. Strawberries can be hard to get right: sometimes watery, sometimes floury in the middle, sometimes scratchy on the outside. Although British strawberries are a million miles better than those we import during the rest of the year, I don’t find myself going mad over them like I do other seasonal fruits of summer (gooseberries, apricots and Pakistani mangoes being the main trio).
Except for times when I jazz up a bowl of halved strawberries using a bit of kitchen magic. At times like these I realize the heady heights one can reach with a strawberry, provided the right combination of ingredients are used to tease out that gorgeous sweet-tart juice and soften the curves of the berry into fragrant deliciousness.
Several tricks can be used to coax an average punnet of strawberries into something very special. Balsamic vinegar works wonders, combined with a little sugar – its syrupy sourness brings out the tartness of the berries. A little orange zest is also excellent, providing warmth and zing. A squeeze of lemon juice, in the same vein as the balsamic. Black pepper, a surprising match perhaps, is wonderful, again giving a little heat while heightening the flavour. Basil is the herb that works best with strawberries, its subtle clove-like notes enhancing the berries’ flavour – if you haven’t yet had a strawberry tart with a scoop of basil sorbet, you’re missing out. Mint can also work too. Cinnamon, as well, is lovely in small amounts with strawberries, its earthy warmth counteracting their freshness.
It occurred to me the other day that I could vamp up a bowl of strawberries in seconds if I had some flavoured sugar on hand, infused with some of the above perfect partners. With this in mind, I got out my trusty pestle and mortar. I crushed some black peppercorns – you don’t realize how much intense flavour there is in the flavour of pepper until you crush the corns in a pestle and mortar rather than a pepper grinder; it’s quite astounding – and mixed them with some orange peel powder (probably my favourite item from JustIngredients, for its unusual nature and versatility), a pinch of cinnamon, and some golden caster sugar. I then picked a few basil leaves, put them in too, and ground the lot. The leaves broke down and stained the sugar pale green with their essential oils, and the smell as the mixture was crushed together was intoxicating. I felt a little like I was making perfume.
All you need then is a bowl of halved strawberries (cutting them means there’s more surface area for the flavoured sugar to come into contact with, and infuse). Sprinkle over this intensely aromatic sugar, stir, and leave for a few minutes. The strawberries will soften and release a little juice, turning gloriously sweet, surrounded by the incredible fragrance of sweet basil, earthy orange, spicy pepper and warming cinnamon. If you can’t imagine how it’ll taste, try it – the results are wonderful.
This sugar would work with other summer fruits, too – it’s very good in a mixed summer fruit salad with strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants and halved cherries, though it’s also perfection with a simple bowl of the British summer’s favourite berry.
Strawberries with aromatic basil sugar (serves 4):
- 2 punnets strawberries, hulled and halved
- ½ tsp black peppercorns
- ½ tsp orange peel powder
- A pinch of cinnamon
- 3 tbsp golden caster sugar
- A couple of sprigs of basil or mint, leaves picked
Put the strawberries in a large bowl. In a pestle and mortar, crush the black peppercorns to a fine powder. Stir in the orange peel powder and cinnamon, then add the sugar. Add the basil/mint leaves and grind everything together until the leaves break down into the sugar and stain it jade green. Sprinkle over the berries, toss together and leave for a few minutes to macerate. Serve scattered with extra basil or mint leaves, if you like.