Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My Big Strawberry "Jam": The "Good Mother" Always Wins.

Eating freshly picked, wild mountain strawberries in Italy:
the essence of summertime.

It's been a funny Spring so far. The weather isn't nearly as warm by now as I'd hoped, but April has been a-buzz with happiness and business of all sorts with my mom's visit and Roman's fast-approaching 1st birthday. To call this Spring serendipitous would almost be an understatement, what with unexpected volcano eruptions that have stranded my Mom in London, and a new home on the horizon (more on that another day :) ).

Nevertheless, I look forward to this time of year for many reasons, as I have already mentioned. But one of the quieter, less tectonic, and more delicious reasons is early-season British Strawberries.

They start popping up right around now (mid to late April) and go on in fine form well-through the end of summer. They are red, juicy and sweet at this time of year, unlike the orangeish-white flavourless variety you get the rest of the year. And they are the perfect finger food for mothers and babies alike. Roman is a, serious, unabashed strawberry-eating-monster. I like my baby beasts that way.

My personal history with
strawberries is a long and varied one. Its emotional range is that of an annoyingly melodramatic opera, the likes of Madame Butterfly: there's been love, there's been hate, there's been unnecessary and depressing butchering of delicate, stupidly unsuspecting creatures (in no particular order). And that, my friends, is exactly the reason for the Strawberry "Jam" I'm perpetually in: what is the good, the bad, the ugly? - and who comes out on top as the berry best strawberry experience of all?

* * *

The Strawberry "Jam": The Berry Best and The Berry Worst
a life of Strawberry angst

5. HATE: Strawberry-Cheesecake-Topping
I must have been about seven or eight years old the year that my mom made that infamous strawberry cheesecake. I'm not sure why, but cheesecake in my family was revered as the dessert to end all desserts - the holy of holies. If you could make a good cheesecake, my family both loved and revered you, and for that reason if there was ever a reason to make a dessert from scratch, there was inevitably a cheesecake in the fridge.

On this particular occasion my mom made a New York style cheesecake topped with a
strawberry compote/syrup thing. I think she must have bought the strawberry topping pre-made because it was that bright, unnatural red color that you see on supermarket cakes and maraschino cherries, and had a sticky, oozy syrupy look that most people find appetizing. image credit

It was sitting on the top shelf of the half-split refrigerator, right at my eye-level, when I opened the door to get the milk for breakfast. And it beckoned loudly to me, strawberry scent and oozy syrup just begging to be eaten. I took a shamelessly large strawberry off the top with a large dollop of reddish syrup and quickly shoved it in my mouth before anyone could catch me. I was suddenly gripped by a horrific need to retch combined with an instantaneous case of the sugar-shakes. It was the sweetest, syrupiest, ooziest, strawberriest flavor I'd ever had, in a disgustingly unnatural way...I was so freaked out that for almost twenty years I avoided eating strawberry jam, compote, syrup - anything strawberry flavored except for fresh strawberries - completely.

4. LOVE: Bonne Maman Wild Strawberry Conserve
After being scarred by the strawberry cheesecake topping, it took a good mother to bring me back to the path of salvation.

When I moved to London I discovered two things:
1. That Matt is a voracious consumer of toast and jam
2. That refusing to try strawberry jam based on one experience twenty years ago was a little ridiculous, given my "always-try-everything-once" food mantra

On a whim (and Matt's insistence), I picked up a jar of Bonne Maman Wild Strawberry conserve for the fridge. It took me months to build up the courage to actually try it, but once I did I couldn't believe what I'd been missing all those years. This jam was not too sweet - in fact it was slightly tart. And it had the delicious combination of small and large strawberries that made it both aesthetically pleasing to the eye and gastronomically very acceptable to the palate.

A small bonus was in the pretty shape of the jar and red-white gingham lids which give it a French-country flare I find iressistible, despite its widely commercialized and distributed nature. I loved it so much I started keeping the jars to put my freshly grown and dried spices in, and ended up even saving the jars to use as a cute, rustic set of picnic lemonade glasses.

In the competition for "best" anything - the "good mother" always wins. : )

3. UNNECESSARY BUTCHERING: Homemade (pectin-less) Strawberry Jam
And speaking of strawberry jams and irrational moves on my part, despite refusing to eat strawberry jam, I decided a couple of years back that I would try to make my own one September, inspired by a deceptively easy strawberry jam recipe on an episode of the Barefoot Contessa.

My best friend Monica's birthday is in September and that year I decided to make a batch of strawberry jam and jar it in my laughably miniature NYC kitchen, then send it to her all the way in St. Louis. Six punnets of strawberries (four of those having ended up in the trash) and three attempts later, I had two diminutive jars of runny but delicious strawberry jam.

It took me several hours of slave work and throwing away two perfectly good jam batches to realize that when jolly little Ina says that the lemon juice in the recipe will "thicken" the jam, she means that in the loosest of terms. Yes, lemon juice is a natural thickener and preservative, but unless I'm missing something here (or not cooking the jam long enough) it sure doesn't give you that gelled-up store-bought jam look or feel. In fact, my jam was so runny you had to use a spoon to put it on the toast (not that I would know really as Matt ate it all). Next time I go the way of homemade jam, I will use the stash of pectin that now permanently resides in my bodega.

And for the record, Monica got the jam safe and sound, and despite also noting the runny consistency, I think, ate it all. : )

2. DEPRESSING BUTCHERING: Tiptree Wilkin & Sons' Little Scarlet Jam
I am a Bonne Maman-fiend, as I stated above, and so I rarely deviate from that brand when buying jam (unless I go for St. Dalfour's or an artisanal brand I've found somewhere special). But I'd read about the strawberry jam to end all strawberry jams in my Olive Magazine a couple of months ago, and when the season started this year I decided to splurge and get some.

Tiptree Wilkin & Son's Little Scarlet Jam is about twice as expensive as any other jam in the supermarket for a couple of reasons. The brand is more expensive because it is kind of the typically British "we've farmed the land for over 300 years..." type deal that tugs at the heartstrings of the gastronomically emotional like myself. Whereas a jar of Bonne Maman Strawberry jam will cost you £1.99 at Tesco, a jar of Little Scarlet is £3.49. Why? I'm not sure.

You can read more about the intensely flavored diminutive strawberry only grown on the Tiptree estates here. As for me, I find it syrupy sweet to a fault, and not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as the aforementioned good mother (though I do kind of like the Tiptree labels). Call me a fool, call me simple and unsophisticated. I'm never paying that much for a jam I hate again.

1. UNSUSPECTING DELICATE CREATURES: Strawberries, Pineberries, and Strasberries
In the UK there is a hierarchy of supermarkets (as in all places, I suppose). And within that price-fighting, quality-changing hierarchy exists an internal hierarchy of "best strawberries."
I won't go into too much detail, but here's how the supermarkets play out in my mind:

Best quality but most expensive goes to Waitrose.

Average quality but best value goes to Tesco.

Variable quality and good value goes to Sainsbury's.

Questionable quality but downright cheap goes to ASDA.

The shady economy has definitely increased competition and forced Waitrose to lower prices and even create an "essentials" store-brand range (which I LOVE!), but you still find better brands, and more interesting foods there. And as far as the best strawberries go, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Waitrose has the best looking and tasting.

Pineberries and Strasberries: mmmm-mmmm weird (and good).

And as the icing on the cake, they are also innovative. As of a couple of weeks ago Waitrose launched the introduction of a fruit I didn't even know existed until last month when I read
this blog post: the pineberry.

It is a white strawberry. It looks like a strawberry but smells and tastes like a pineapple! I'm dying to try these and lucky for me, my local Putney and Wandsworth Waitrose branches will both have the coveted lovelies available during the season. In reading about all this I learned that modern day commercial strawberries, though originally native to north and south America, are actually a hybrid created in Europe by the British and French, and that the pineberry is one part of that hybrid. Little Scarlet (strawberries were called "scarlets" in the old days) is the other.

In addition to the pineberry, Waitrose also introduced Strasberries not long ago - a combo of strawberries and raspberries. Delicate and brightly colored, these berries have also been beckoning to me from their shelves. Perhaps I'll try one. Here's to hoping it's not a scarring experience.

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  1. There is supposedly a bumper crop of strawberries on the West Coast this spring, which supposedly means lower prices at the market. Guess the memo hasn't reached the Midwest yet! Still, I'm looking forward to more strawberries as the weather warms up. You've certainly put me in the mood for them - I love strawberry jam on cream cheese and on ice cream. Oh, I should haul out my IC maker and make something strawberryish. . .

    Pineberries look awesome! I've never seen them before (and likely never will except in blog posts). Nothing like a volcano in Iceland to provide an excellent reason to extend a family visit! Have fun and happy anticipation of Roman's First! 8-)

  2. We've been taking full advantage of all the wonderful strawberries we've been finding - We got a huge produce bag stuffed with luscious incredibly aromatic strawberries for a buck. Mr. Oyster and I giggled thinking we had gotten an incredible deal, and then we were off to the next farm stop only to find them even cheaper. I wish I had known about their availability and the price and I would have stocked up and made jam, as it is we've had the most incredible fruit smoothies. As much as I agree with you on Bonne Marie jam, nothing beats homemade!

    Sounds like you have a lot to be celebrating - congrats on all the happy activity.