Living in California has its advantages: one of them is the abundance of fresh produce, which makes it a paradise for cooks. I got an early education in that field, pun intended: my paternal grandparents returned to a farming/gardening life when they retired and I spent countless vacation hours helping them in the vineyard, harvesting asparagus, shelling fresh peas, trimming green beans for canning, gathering potatoes for winter storage, and picking strawberries to be served that very evening. For me, there were only two kinds of strawberries: the plump round ones that I picked in grandpa’s garden and the tiny elongated kind that grew wild in his woods.
The latter (fraises des bois) I would just enjoy on the spot while hunting for mushrooms as it took a lot of time and effort to gather enough for a family dessert! The strawberries grown in the garden received more consideration: they could turn color and ripen quite quickly and had to be closely monitored. I always wanted to harvest them at their finest, late in the afternoon, after they had soaked in the warmth of the sun. I would rinse them in the cool water from the well, hull them, then set them up in grandma’s white saladier until it was time for dessert. We ate on their own, perhaps with a bit of sugar or paired with the fromage blanc made by Monsieur Adam, our neighbor. Grandpa being diabetic, sugar was off limits for him; he usually enjoyed his berries in a bowl, doused with the red wine he made from his own grapes.
I didn’t pay that much attention to which variety of berries he grew back then: why would I bother when they always tasted so delicious, freshly plucked from the garden and consumed within hours? As I got involved in the specialty food business, it became my duty (et mon plaisir) to quiz my suppliers about what kind of strawberries they used in the various jams, preserves or conserves I sold.
Since I usually fly back to France every May, I’ve had many opportunities to linger at the outdoor markets and study what is displayed on the stalls. There are more than one hundred different varieties of strawberries but three of them are top-ranked in France. The Gariguette is a real star: medium-sized and elongated, with an orangey red color, it’s an early variety that’s sweet with a touch of acidity. The Mara des Bois is also much sought after: it’s fleshy and juicy, exhibiting a brilliant deep red color and a round shape, with the sweet and musky aroma of wild strawberries. The Charlotte is a favorite among children: bright red color, heart-shaped, firm, sweet, and juicy, it makes beautiful tarts and jams. Once in a while, you might even find white strawberries like the Anablanca, one of the oldest varieties (white strawberries were brought back to France from Chile in 1728 by explorer Jacques-Cartier.) Surprisingly, their taste is reminiscent of… pineapple!
When you have access to freshly picked fruits, simple preparations are best to showcase their flavor. There is a produce stand on my way home from work and that Chinese family has been growing strawberries for decades: the strawberry beds sit right behind the tiny shed and the fruits are picked daily. As soon as the harvest starts, I stop by and pick up a pint or two: they are so perfectly ripe, they don’t keep more than a day or two. Most of the time, we just eat them out of hand. Sometimes, I add some cream. And sometimes, I tip my hat to Grandpa and serve them with red wine.
Fraises au Vin
Strawberries in Wine
1 1/4 lb strawberries
2 cups red wine
3/4 cup sugar
1 stick cinnamon
1 star anise
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp crushed pink peppercorns
Mint or basil leaves for garnish
Wash, dry, and hull the strawberries; halve or quarter them depending on size and reserve in a large bowl. Pour the wine into a saucepan; add sugar, cinnamon, star anise, and balsamic vinegar. Bring to a boil then simmer 5 minutes. Remove cinnamon and star anise; pour over the strawberries. Let cool then refrigerate until ready to serve. Divide into 6 individual bowls and sprinkle with crushed pink peppercorns.
Sylvaine’s tips: use a light red wine (Beaujolais, Gamay, or Cabernet Franc, for instance.) Pour the wine mixture on the strawberries while it's hot: the fruit will be slightly poached. If pink peppercorns are not available, you can replace them with freshly ground black pepper.
La fraise des bois: wild strawberry
Le saladier: salad bowl
Le fromage blanc: French “cottage” cheese
Mon plaisir: my pleasure