Graeme Pallister, chef patron of 63 Tay Street in Perth, recalls happy childhood days in the Blairgowrie berry fields and suggests ways to make the most of strawberries…
The Scottish strawberry – also known as the finest example of natural perfection known to man. I’m a Blairgowrie boy and I grew up surrounded by the mighty berry fields o’ Blair. Picking strawberries in the early 1980s was a huge part of my childhood – you wore your cuts and stains as a badge of honour and would proudly boast about the huge amounts you could eat without feeling ill.
Back then, without the aid of polytunnels to protect our crop, the season was much shorter. As a food lover and chef, I’m a fan of the work that has been done to extend our harvest. So long as it doesn’t interfere with the genetic make-up of our food, what’s not to champion? In fact, if we left everything entirely to Mother Nature we’d have summers and winters with no harvest at all, rafts of angry farmers and entire teams of suicidal chefs weeping into their empty veg baskets.
Berry growing is worth £100 million to the Scottish economy – can you imagine if we decided not to protect our tourism industry or whisky distilleries? There would be an outcry! October strawberries aren’t Bad Berries – they’ve simply been given a hand.
Our climate in Scotland is darn near perfect for berry growing: our long clear nights, not too hot sun and damp air make for the sweetest, juiciest soft fruit in the world. Use your taste buds to do what the fruit demands. In April and May, when the strawberries aren’t quite as sweet, I will gently sauté or roast them, using the heat to bring out the flavour. As a top tip, scrape out a vanilla pod into your sauté pan and serve in a sweet pastry crust. Now, take your vanilla pod and place into an air tight tub of castor sugar – more on this later!
Once the sun comes out in June, and you feel heat on your back both morning and night, then you know Mother Nature is working her magic. These are the strawberries of my youth and I defy you to do anything that could make them better – except perhaps adding a splodge of cream. Anything else and your wasting your time and money as far as I’m concerned.
As a wee aside, if you’ve ever watched a toddler eating summertime Scottish strawberries you will know what real joy truly looks like.
Towards the end of summer, getting into September, you should befriend your local berry farm or farm shop and get in there for the best of the ‘seconds’. Still darn fine tasting fruit, these berries a bit smaller and slightly odd in shape. Perfect, in other words, for jam! Get your big pot down from the shelf and stir up one of the best aromas your kitchen will ever bathe in, as you squeeze the last of the season out of these little beauts. Now, remember that vanilla pod in sugar? Get it down from the shelf and use this in your jam pot for an unrivalled depth of flavour and sweetness. Maybe even get the kids to make labels – after all, they need something to wave around as a badge of honour!
Chef’s tip: Use your late summer berries to make a coulis and pop into ice cube trays in the freezer. Come November when the sun has gone, you can defrost and pour over ice cream for a little summer nostalgia!