The first strawberries to ripen are the so-called wild ones. (Wild as in rampage rather than habitat.) Each one barely bigger than an old-fashioned midget gem, they hide under their leaves, creating a secret world of tiny berries, a place of safety from the birds who like nothing more than a strawberry tea. Despite their prolific tendencies, growing in pots, rose beds and in the crevices of the garden paths, there are never enough ripe at the same time for any sort of recipe. They are eaten during my early-morning walk around the garden. There are worse ways to start the day.
This is the year the larger, cultivated varieties ran amok in the vegetable beds, challenging even the rainbow chard for ground space. The first to turn from green to white was Pegasus, a medium berry known as much for its resistance to mildew as for its flavour. Together with Gariguette, Chelsea Pensioner and Florence, they are part of my attempt to get back the smaller berries I love rather than the shop-bought ones, which seem to get bigger and uglier each year. A packet turned up in my kitchen last week with fruit almost the size of clementines. A berry that had lost all charm and magic, pumped up out of all recognition.
The wet weather does nothing for fruit growing so close to the ground. A packing of straw around each plant has helped but can encourage mould. Pine needles make a good protector, too. I have made a note to save the branches from my Christmas tree.
But what about those lacklustre fruits, the ones that won't ripen or that looked promising but failed to deliver? A little sugar sprinkled over the cut berry helps, but I don't always want to add sugar to my berries. The traditional black-pepper thing didn't really work for me until I swapped my usual black pepper for long pepper. Long and thin rather than round, I often think this is the most beautiful spice of all. The flavour, a little deeper and, I think, sweeter than the norm, seems to lend itself to desserts. I was introduced to it by Tom Alcott of the Bristol-based Peppermongers, who stirred it into cream to accompany raspberries. He recommends using it on nectarines, although mixing it with cream was the real revelation for me. This week I added it to puff-pastry palmiers to go with some strawberries.
The other essential ingredient for perking up a berry is balsamic vinegar. Occasionally it's found in inappropriate places, but the dark, sticky vinegar's real reason for living is to tease flavour from a strawberry. You only need a little – and it does sound daft, but it works.
Strawberry and black pepper palmiers
Grind the long pepper in a mill or using a pestle and mortar. Black pepper can also be used. Start with a little, just two or three decent pinches over the pastry.
Serves 6For the palmiers: puff pastry 375gegg 1, beaten caster sugar 3 tbsp, plus a little extraground black or long pepper
For the filling:double cream 150mlricotta 200gpistachios 50g shelled weight, choppedlong pepper 2 or 3 tailsvanilla extract a drop or twostrawberries 12
Place the puff pastry on a lightly floured work surface or wooden board and roll out to a rectangle about 40x30cm. Brush with a little beaten egg, sprinkle with the caster sugar then lightly with the ground pepper. With the long side towards you, loosely roll each short side inwards until they meet in the middle, brushing with more egg, sugar and pepper as you go. You should have a thick, flat roll of pastry.
Slice the pastry into 12 pieces lengthways. Roll each long slice out a little more, depending on how thin you want your palmiers to be in the end, then place all the slices flat on a baking sheet. Put them in the fridge for about 20 minutes before baking. Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6, then sprinkle over a little more sugar and bake for 15-20 minutes until risen and golden. Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.
For the filling, put the cream in a cold bowl and whisk it gently until it starts to thicken, then gently fold in the ricotta, the pistachios, a few grinds of pepper if you wish, and some vanilla extract.
Place half of the palmiers on a serving plate and divide the cream between them. Share the strawberries between them and place the remaining palmiers on top.
Strawberry and raspberry sundae
For a large group of people, pile this all on to a huge platter in the centre of the table and just let everyone tuck in.
Serves 2-3 strawberries 300gbalsamic vinegar 1 tspvanilla ice cream 500ml
For the sauce:raspberries 200gsparkling mineral water 3 or 4 tbsplemon balm or lemon verbena 3 or 4 leaves
For the cream:double cream 150mlvanilla seeds a pinch or two
Hull and halve the strawberries and put them in a bowl. Pour over the balsamic vinegar and set aside for half an hour.
To make the sauce, put the raspberries in a food processor and blitz to a smooth purée. I leave the seeds in, but sieve them out if you prefer. If you are using the lemon balm or verbena, add it now, together with the mineral water. Blitz briefly, then set aside. It may need a last-minute stir before you use it.
Pour the cream into a chilled bowl and whisk it briefly until it thickens enough to hold its own shape. It shouldn't be stiff enough to stand in peaks. Gently fold in a pinch or two of vanilla seeds.
To assemble, alternate macerated strawberries, vanilla cream, scoops of ice cream and trickles of raspberry purée.
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