The tiny alpine variety of strawberry that grows wild might just be the tastiest strawberry there is. The minuscule fruits, sherbet sweet and deeply flavoursome, melt in the mouth in seconds. We have a small patch of them growing in the dappled shade of some rosebushes. We also forage a few extra from the grassy banks that edge the quiet country lanes near the house.
It is our love of these wild berries that led us to put the cultivated variety Mara des Bois at the very top of our strawberry wishlist for the garden. Mara des Bois were originally bred in France from a mix of four other varieties and are said to capture the flavour of wild strawberries in a much larger fruit. So, last winter we enthusiastically ordered twelve of the bare-rooted plants. Caught up in the excitement of a strawberry multi-buy bargain deal, we also ordered a few Snow White, a variety described as having a flavour reminiscent of pineapple. Unusually, Snow White strawberries remain without colour when they ripen, apart from a reddish tinge to the seeds and a blush to the flesh (a handy feature to limit their detection by our garden blackbird family, who are big summer berry fans and have already snaffled far too many redcurrants for our liking).
The fruit cage is pretty much full (and already populated by the Elsanta strawberries that were left by the previous owners), so we planted the new runners out at the edges of the rhubarb patch instead. They haven’t had it easy. First came the snow in February and then again in March, but the hardy plants recovered from that well. Then, just as the frilly strawberry leaves started to emerge from the ground, the plants were spotted by the geese, who felt it was important to sample the new greenery, leading to an unfortunate setback to the strawbs’ growth spurt. Self-seeded poppies and love-in-the-mist later sprung up around the regrown foliage and we hadn’t the heart to weed them out, which meant the strawberry plants were more crowded and shaded than is ideal. But they soldiered on and against all odds have begun to bear their first fruits. The blackbirds have steered clear of the berries so far this year, but instead we have found ourselves in competition with two of the olive egger chickens, who have learnt to fly out of their pen and spend their days roaming the entire garden as they please. As such, every tiny harvest of cream and red berries is like holding a handful of treasure.
It is all too easy to polish off the whole clutch in a matter of moments, but some days we’re able to execute a degree of restraint to ensure that at least some of berries make it to the kitchen. A chilled pudding made with organic whole milk, thick double cream and a few of spoonfuls of raw honey is the perfect accompaniment to the medley of sunshine-warm strawberries. This refreshing dessert has some similarities to a panna cotta, but the addition of milk means it is a little lighter, plus it has the delicate, blossomy flavours of raw honey running through it. We have a tin of foraged cobnuts left over from last year, which cracked and caramelised in a little sugar, add crunch to the bowl. There are a few baby chocolate mint leaves and some of the last elderflowers from the garden to finish.
Milk Jelly with Strawberries, Elderflower, and Cobnut Brittle
For the milk jelly
- 4 sheets gelatine
- 450 ml whole milk, ideally organic
- 150 ml double cream, ideally organic
- 3 tbsp honey, ideally raw and unpasturised
For the cobnut brittle
- 125 g shelled cobnuts
- 1 pinch sea salt
- 125 g golden caster sugar
- A few handfuls of strawberries, ideally a mixture of wild and cultivated varieties
- A few small, fresh chocolate mint leaves
- 1 head of elderflower, flowers seperated from stem
Start by making the milk pudding. Soak the gelatine leaves in some cold water for around five minutes until they soften. Meanwhile, combine the milk, cream and honey in a saucepan and warm gently for a few minutes over a low heat. Don't allow the mixture to get any hotter than 35°C or the honey will lose its wonderful raw properties. Squeeze any excess water from the gelatine leaves and add them to the pan, giving them a stir to quickly dissolve them. Divide the mixture evenly between four wide shallow bowls (we usually use enamel soup bowls) or, alternatively (as we have done in the photographs here) make one large pudding (we used an enamel pie dish) and leave to set for around 12 hours (or overnight) in the fridge. The puddings will keep for a few days in the fridge as long as the cream and milk you used was fresh.
To make the cobnut brittle: grease a sheet of baking parchment with a little sunflower oil. Lightly toast the chopped cobnuts in a pan with a pinch of sea salt, then set aside. Melt the sugar in a small saucepan over a medium heat until it is golden brown and all of the granules of sugar have dissolved. Take the sugar off the heat, immediately stir in the toasted nuts, then pour the sticky mixture onto the baking parchment, spreading it out and flattening it to around 1cm thickness (you'll need to do this very quickly as the sugar will start to cool and set as soon as you stir in the nuts). You'll end up with more brittle than you need for the pudding but, wrapped in baking parchment and stored in a tin, the remainder will happily keep for a week or two.
To assemble the pudding: hull and quarter the larger strawberries; hull and half the smaller strawberries, and keep the wild strawberries intact. Arrange the strawberry quarters and halves on top of the fridge-cold bowls of milk jelly, then scatter the wild strawberries over the top. Break off some small pieces of cobnut brittle and dot them amongst the strawberries. Place a few mint leaves among the fruit and sprinkle over some of the tiny elderflowers. Serve immediately.