We also had cultivated strawberries, and in our fertile province of Bourbonnais they were certainly big and sweet. At my home the strawberry plants bordered the garden, for, as you perhaps know, gardens of small French homes are seldom separated into vegetables, flowers, and herbs. Everything is planted in a sort of friendly fashion, the curly carrot tops and the parsley, for instance, considered a pleasing foil for bright-colored pensées and pétunias, with fruit trees placed wherever a little shade is desired or else en espalier, against one of the walls. Like most French families, we ate our midday meal out of doors in warm weather on a strip of terrace between the house and the garden. The big table with its inevitable blue-and-white-checked cloth, set sons la tonnelle de glycine—a wistaria-covered arbor—was duplicated in almost every home in our part of France. Sitting in the partially shaded sunshine and finishing a good dinner with strawberries that you have watched ripen along the garden's edge, every berry freshly picked at the peak of its goodness, is an experience to remember.
These memories are what make me feel that the best time to eat strawberries is when they are in season locally so that they can be picked ripe. Actually, in the large cities of this country cultivated strawberries are obtainable as much as ten months of the year, coming from warm states such as California, Louisiana, Florida, and Virginia when they are out of season in northern cities. Obviously, the longer the distance they travel, the less ripe they must be when picked or they will be overripe and unsalable when they reach their destination. The wild strawberries that gourmets crave are almost impossible to secure unless you know where to pick them yourself. Only very occasionally have I been able to locate anyone who would bring in some from the country for me to buy and give me the opportunity of making real strawberries parisienne.
Since strawberries are available such a large part of the year, a chef is put on his mettle to think of delicious and varied ways of serving them so they won't become ordinaire. And that brings me to the different ways strawberries are prepared and served.
First they must be cleaned, and how thoroughly depends upon how they are grown. In England and on the Continent straw is usually spread on the ground under the plants to prevent the damp soil from causing spots of decay before the plants are fully mature and also to keep the soil from washing up onto them during rains. Consequently, the berries require very little cleaning. But in this country, where a baffle of straw is less frequently used, you will find they are sometimes quite sandy. Then cleaning is very important, because there is nothing much worse than getting even the slightest bit of grit in the mouth when it is all set for something succulent.
I clean strawberries this way. Remove the stems and put the berries in a colander or large strainer. Dip this in very hot water for 2 seconds and follow with a quick dip in a pan of cold water. Then give them a final rinse in cold water and drain them thoroughly.
Strawberries have such a superb flavor of their own that they should always be prepared in ways that will best emphasize it, never overpower it by other too-pronounced flavors. Simply eaten with cream is probably one of the most popular, and if the berries have been picked fully ripe, one could hardly ask for anything more luscious. The Frenchman likes his Normandy crème d'Isigny, the Englishman his Devonshire cream. They are fairly similar in that each is a cream with a high butter-fat content and so rich that it cannot be poured but must be spooned into a dish. If you can get an extremely heavy cream, you will have about the same richness, although the flavor will be different because of the difference in pasturage in France, in England, and in the United States.
Strawberries with Heavy Cream (D'Isigny or Devonshire Type)
Select large, fully ripe strawberries, clean them if necessary, but do not remove the stems. Put a generous serving of the heavy cream in the center of each plate and arrange the berries in a circle around the cream. Sprinkle the berries with a little powdered sugar. Eat the berries with the fingers, picking up one at a time by its stem and dipping it in the cream.
The other simple way of eating strawberries—probably one of the most usual ways in France but, I think, the least usual in other countries—is au vin. A light, pleasant wine is preferred. At home we used les vins du pays, local wines with an alcohol content so low that they cannot stand being transported and so were never shipped out of the province. The light delicacy of these wines perfectly complements the berries.
Strawberries with Red Wine (Fraises an Vin Rouge)
Sprinkle 1 quart cleaned whole strawberries with 3 tablespoons sugar and pour 1/2 cup red wine over the fruit, using a shallow bowl so that they will all be covered. Chill for a few hours before serving.
A more elegant way of serving strawberries with wine, often seen in the de luxe hotels and a pleasant change for a sophisticated party, is with champagne.
Strawberries with Champagne
Sprinkle cleaned whole strawberries with sugar and chill. When ready to serve, put them in individual glass dishes and pour champagne (pink champagne is nice) over them.
Other ways of serving the fresh strawberries range from such a simple dish as lemon strawberries to combinations of strawberries with other fruits and fruit ices and those that are enhanced with sauces and with the flavors of various liqueurs.
Mix cleaned whole strawberries with powdered sugar and pour over them a little strained lemon juice. Serve very cold.