10 June, 2010

Baby birds, berries and blossoms, oh my.

In my house, even the cactus goes giddy in spring. This modest little mound of cactus was letting it all hang out, with a improbable total of seven flowers. Before, during and after the vernal visits of friends and family, I'm as seasonally affected, making every effort to take advantage of the produce and fruits on hand. The asparagus are tiptoeing their way from center stage, which makes me wish I'd made more of last night's soup, a velvety crème d'asperge inflected with few drops of lemon. But of course, for that sort of thing, I'd require a lot more freezer space than I actually have. I may be the only person I know of in the countryside who does not have a deep freezer. (Sorry, a bit off-topic--a bit bitter.)

Coming into their own just as the local asparagus become harder to find are the strawberries. (I know, this year, everything's delayed by a couple of weeks). If you live in France--or even if you're simply visiting--do keep these three names in mind: Mara des bois, Charlotte and Gariguette. Whether you buy the plant or the fruit, they are your one-way ticket to strawberry nirvana. All three are coveted for their particularly rich berry scent and are exceedingly sweet. In a market, they're the priciest, even though their fruit are quite small when compared to the jumbo industrial, scentless types.

Using garden Charlottes and some Mara des bois--all picked by moi while awaiting the masses of truly wild strawberry plants in the meadow to bear fruit--I've already made a couple of batches of strawberry ice cream. Without actually following a set recipe, I taste test my way along, but I generally come up with roughly the following: about three or four cups of smashed berries, to which I add about 1/4 cup cream, around 1/2 cup condensed milk, a couple of tablespoons of French homemade blackberry liqueur (to deepen the berry flavor and prevent the overhardening of the ice cream) and finally, about a tablespoon of fresh lemon or lime juice. After a few whirls in the ice cream maker, it's unadorned happiness in a bowl, the kind of pleasure that makes you feel like climbing a tree just because it's there.

I also made some sorbet, which I should really take a picture of before it's all devoured: the colour is fairly spectacular. Again, I felt my way through the process, adding a lemon-mint syrup I'd made, the blackberry liqueur, some fresh lime juice, and so on. I find that true strawberry taste is beautifully amplified once additional acidity (whether from lemon, lime or good balsamic vinegar) and some delicate complementary flavors are added to the mix. [Insert allusion to back-up singers making the song here...]
I've some jam-to-be macerating overnight as instructed in the divinely inventive Miss Christine Ferber's recipe for Strawberry Preserves with Black Pepper and Fresh Mint (thank you so much for sharing, Clothilde!). Christine hails from a baking family in a tiny village in the Alsace, but has become known the world over for her jams, which are quite simply perfect and sometimes rather startling (rose water, raspberry and lychee, anyone?). Within France, she is known as the jam fairy. It sounds less dumb in French, honest. She has published cookbooks, a number of which are available in English.
Finally, I've also made some strawberry syrup, in anticipation of tea cakes (as in drizzling over) and perspiring glasses of lemonade just sitting around positively yearning for a ruby drop or two to give them that rosy summer glow. I think of lemonade because of course my lavender's begun blooming now, which means a whole host of other culinary possibilities beyond lavender-scented lemonade...In the meantime, check out this quartet of baby wagtails (you can just see some of the distinctive yellow coming in on the tail and side of the chick on the left). Their mother decided make her nest behind a pot of mauve and cream ganzia. I had to switch pots while she was gone from the nest, as otherwise I would have been showering her and her brood rather regularly. They look goofy and awkward now, but they'll soon be ready to fly. I hope to catch the fun of those first flights...in between my own assorted flights of fancy in the kitchen and garden.

Update: I saw the little ones for the last time last week. They had lost all fuzz, and were preternaturally fresh, bright mini-versions of their parents, with sulfur-yellow feathers. I made a mental note to take their picture. By the next day, they'd gone.


  1. The shot of these adorable birds is so precious! I do hope you catch their first attempts at flying and share it here!
    I have a book by Christine Ferber on tartes; I admit I haven't made a single one, the recipes are not adapted to the American consumer but mouthwatering nevertheless; is she related to Christophe Ferber, another well- known chef?

  2. Hello Joumana,
    How are things in Beirut? The only renowned Christophe-the-chef who comes to mind at the moment is Christophe Felder, the pastry chef with that regular piece in Elle Cuisine, among other activities. Both chefs are from the Alsace. You'd be happier with her jam book, from what I understand. The tartes book came about because she (4th generation baker) helped expand the family bakery into traiteur activities, I think. But the jams are where she steals your heart. Apparently her jam classes are in great demand, as well.


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