In the second part of chef Russell Brown's series exploring the versatility of seasonal produce, the former Sienna proprietor celebrates the glorious strawberry and shares some recipes
The strawberry season in the UK runs for around eight months, but for many it is still considered a summer berry. There are many varieties, including Elsanta, Sweet Eve, Sonata and Red Glory, all with slightly different characteristics.
I recently visited fifth-generation strawberry grower Josh Warren at Warrens Farm Strawberries, who cultivates around 12 acres of plants. This is a relatively small operation, but the figures were still staggering.
With a season running from March to November, a team of around 12 pickers harvest 3-4 tonnes of strawberries a day at the height of the season. All the berries are hand planted and then sustained off the ground, at shoulder height, using high-tech computerised feeding and heating systems.
The conversation was peppered with references to Brix values (the amount of sugar in the fruit), silicone content of water, substrate mixes and more. The silicone levels mentioned have a significant effect: high levels mean less mould, but too much causes albino fruit.
Strawberries have a huge variety of uses, and traditional pairings are predominantly with something creamy and something crisp. They are, however, seen occasionally in savoury recipes with tomatoes, salty cheeses such as feta, avocados and balsamic vinegar.
Buying and storage tips
- Smell is a good indicator of sweetness.
- Some berries, such as Elsanta, can be red before they are ripe, giving the possibility of fruit that looks good and has a long shelf life, but won't have a fully developed flavour.
- Buy frequently to keep the fruit fresh.
- Store unwashed with the stalks attached in the refrigerator.
- Once washed, allow to dry on paper towel before storing in a sealed box in the fridge.
- Check regularly and remove any berries that show signs of damage, mould or damp.
- Strawberries can be second grade due to their size or shape, making them an economical option for some dishes.
- Excess berries are best turned into jam or frozen as a coulis.
Generally the vagaries of weather are controlled by growers planting undercover, ensuring good supplies of berries throughout the main season. Excessive hot weather can result in crops ripening too quickly however, and there are occasional gaps when growers switch varieties. Price is tricky as strawberry supply is so dependent on weather, but expect to pay about £2 to £2.50 for a 400g punnet of top-notch fruit.
For the dough
- 150g soft unsalted butter
- 115g icing sugar
- ½ vanilla pod, seeds only
- 40g egg yolk
- 250g soft pastry flour
- 5g finely ground Maldon salt
Cream the butter with the sifted icing sugar and the vanilla seeds, then beat in the egg yolks.
Sift the flour and salt onto the bench and make a well in the centre. Scrape the butter mix into the well and, using your fingertips, gradually bring the flour into the butter mix, working it as little as possible.
Once a homogenous dough has been formed, wrap it in cling film, flatten and chill for a minimum of one hour.
Roll out the dough to a thickness of 3mm. Cut out 18 x 8cm discs and place on baking trays lined with a Silpat mat.
Bake at 160°C for around eight minutes until pale golden in colour. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with caster sugar. Allow to cool for five minutes and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
For the strawberries
- 1dsp icing sugar
- 40ml strawberry coulis
- 60 small, even-sized berries, bases trimmed
In a bowl, mix together the icing sugar and the coulis. Roll the berries in the coulis to glaze.
For the vanilla cream
- 25ml milk
- 1 vanilla pod, seeds only
- 250ml double cream
- 15g icing sugar
Place the milk in a small bowl and add the vanilla seeds, whisking to separate the seeds. Add the cream and icing sugar and whip to soft peaks. Transfer to a piping bag with a 1cm plain nozzle.
Take three shortbread discs and pipe a rosette of cream in the centre of two of them. Arrange five berries in a circle around the cream on both discs. Stack the layers, finishing with the plain shortbread disc. Garnish as required.
Strawberry vanilla cheesecake
Serves 12 (tasting portions)
- Vanilla cheese cream
- 400g soft cream cheese
- 65g caster sugar
- 1 vanilla pod, seeds only
- 75ml milk
- 1 leaf of gelatine, soaked in cold water
- 200ml double cream plus 20ml milk, whipped to very soft peaks
Beat the cream cheese with the sugar and vanilla seeds. Warm the milk, dissolve the gelatine in the milk and pass through a tea strainer into the cream cheese mix. Mix thoroughly. Fold in the whipped cream, working the mix as little as possible. Transfer the mix to a shallow plastic box and refrigerate to set.
- Zest and juice of one orange
- 2tbs runny honey
- 100ml white wine
- 1 vanilla pod
- 250g even-sized ripe strawberries
Zest the orange directly into a saucepan large enough to hold the strawberries in one layer. Squeeze in the orange juice and then add the honey and wine. Split the vanilla pod and scrape out the seeds, adding both to the pan.
Bring to a simmer and then remove from the heat. Allow to cool for 30 minutes and then add the strawberries and enough water to just cover. Bring to a simmer, turn off the heat and allow to sit until the strawberries just soften.
Remove and chill the liquid and berries. Place the berries back in the liquid once cold.
Sweet digestives (makes more than required for 12 portions)
- 150g wholemeal flour
- 50g plain flour
- 5g salt
- 5g baking powder
- 50g fine oatmeal
- 60g dark soft brown sugar
- 100g soft unsalted butter
- 25g golden syrup
- 60ml milk
Sift the flours, salt and baking powder into a bowl and use a whisk to distribute evenly. Mix in the oats and the sugar and then rub in the butter. Add the milk and the syrup and form into a dough. Roll out on a Silpat mat to around 4mm thick and then bake at 160°C for 12-15 minutes until firm and a deep golden brown.
Allow to cool for 10 minutes and then slide onto a cooling wire. Once cold, break into pieces and store in an airtight tub.
- 250g fresh strawberries, washed, hulled and cut according to size
- 75ml golden syrup thinned with a little hot water
- Icing sugar
- Strawberry coulis
Toss the fresh berries with coulis and icing sugar. Spiral the coulis across the plate and add a large quenelle of the cheese cream. Sprinkle the crumbled digestives. Add poached and fresh berries and finish with the golden syrup.
Plates supplied by Continental Chef Supplies (www.chefs.net)
Russell Brown ran the Michelin-starred, three-AA-rosette Sienna restaurant in Dorchester, Dorset, for 12 years with his wife Elena. He launched his website and consultancy business Creative about Cuisine earlier this year. He specialises in restaurant consultancy and photography.