What the world needs now is love and strawberries. In an extract from her book Eat Your Heart Out, Peta Mathias talks about the food of love - strawberries - plus a recipe.
Today we're all mad about strawberries. They were largely ignored in ancient times, as the only fruit they produced were those tiny, rather tasteless wild ones you might find as weeds. They grew in many parts of the world — from the Himalayas to America, Europe to Asia — largely overlooked.
However, the Romans noticed their heart-like shape and colour, so connected them to Venus and love (though, just to be contrary, early churches were carved with them to signify righteousness and perfection). In the 18th century new cultivars were grown, producing larger fruit with a sweet flavour that everyone fell for. Love continued to be tied to the fruit, for a saying then arose that if you split a double strawberry and gave half each to a male and a female, they would promptly fall in love with each other. If only it were that simple!
Unsurprisingly, given their link to love, strawberries belong to the rose family, rosaceae; and their botanical name Fragaria actually means fragrant. They are the only fruit that carries its seeds on the outside, so maybe they should also represent fertility given they are so overt.
Strawberries don't get any riper after picking, so it's important to pick only the bright-red ones. The deeper the colour, the sweeter the berry. If you're buying them in a shop, try to buy them the day you're going to eat them, because putting them in the fridge deadens the flavour (like most fruit, incidentally, including tomatoes). You must eat as many strawberries as possible when they are in season, because they make you happy with their high levels of depression-fighting vitamin B and keep you young and sexy forever with their antioxidants. By autumn the heart-shaped mouthfuls of red fragrance are but a drooling memory, to last only in our dreams and as jam.
The French consider strawberries to be an aphrodisiac and serve strawberry soup to newlyweds. For a romantic setting, the English serve them with clotted cream, icing sugar and pink champagne. Another fabulous way to use strawberries is to put them in a charlotte, which is a sort of French trifle but better.
No one really knows the origin of the word charlotte in this context but it might be a derivative of the old English word charlyt, meaning "a dish of custard". Another source says the dessert was invented by the 18th-century French chef Marie-Antoine Carême and named after Princess Charlotte, the daughter of his former employer George IV. Carême's dish was called Charlotte Russe, also making a nod to his new employer Tsar Alexander I. Whatever the origin, this is a serving of love on a plate.
Charlotte aux poires et fraises — pear and strawberry charlotte
For this dish you will need a charlotte mould (one of those fluted dishes, often with a hole in the centre), or a terrine dish (those rectangular dishes used for making meat loaf), with a 1.5-litre capacity.
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17 to 22 ladyfinger biscuits, depending on the size of your mould (they're also known savoiardi or sponge fingers)
100g fresh strawberries, plus extra for garnish
Juice of half a lemon
3 eggs, plus 2 egg yolks
300ml cream or creme fraiche
100g canned pears, diced
1 Tbsp kirsch
Line the sides and bottom of the charlotte mould with the ladyfinger biscuits. If need be, trim the sides so they fit tightly, forming a continuous outer layer.
Puree the strawberries in a blender or with an electric stick.
Squeeze the lemon juice into a small pan and sprinkle the gelatine over it. Leave to stand for about five minutes, until the gelatine becomes spongy.
While waiting for the gelatine to do its work, put the three eggs plus the two separated egg yolks with the sugar in a bowl and beat until well mixed.
Set the bowl of beaten eggs over a pan of hot but not boiling water. Beat again until the mixture is very thick and light and leaves a ribbon trail when the beater is lifted. Remove from the heat.
Whip the cream in a separate bowl and put it aside for the time being. By this time, the gelatine should be softened and ready to dissolve over a low heat.
When the gelatine has dissolved, beat it into the hot egg mixture and continue beating until cool. Stir in the strawberry puree and diced pears.
Set this bowl over ice or put in the freezer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture starts to set. As soon as it does, fold in the whipped cream and the kirsch at once.
Pour the mixture into the biscuit-lined charlotte mould. Cover and chill for at least four hours, until firm.
To serve, trim the ladyfingers level with the top of the mould (this is essential to create a firm base), set a plate on top and carefully turn both plate and mould upside down so the charlotte releases from the mould and stands upright on the plate. Garnish with fresh strawberries.
Extracted from Eat Your Heart Out by Peta Mathias (Random House NZ, RRP $35). Text © Peta Mathias, 2019.