The early summer sunshine has worked wonders for this year's strawberry harvest. I brought a punnet home this week that were among the most sublime I have ever eaten: rich, sweet and intense, blowing away in one bite the old saw that things "don't taste like they used to". Both locally and organically grown, they ticked a few green boxes for me, too.
What pleased me almost as much as their exquisite flavour was that these berries were on the small side. It is a fact that a lot of our soft fruits have been getting bigger over the past few years. Who it is that is actually asking for berries the size of apricots I really don't know. I don't want a blueberry the size of a Frisbee or a raspberry so big you could wear it on the end of your finger, like a thimble. Pumped-up berries have none of the charm and intrigue of a tiny, jewel-like fruit and, in my experience, are often lacking in the flavour department, too.
Annoyingly, this week's delightfully misshapen, characterful strawberries preferred to remain anonymous, refusing to declare their variety, or any information other than their local provenance. I get through a lot of berries. A couple of good handfuls go into the early morning smoothie, then as often as not turn up again in some form or another after lunch. Tiny fruits make an expensive but healthy treat too – a box of blueberries is often what I absent-mindedly pick at while glued to Gardeners' World.
That seven o'clock morning smoothie is usually a whizz-up of thick, blindingly white goat's yogurt and sweet almond milk, but at its heart is always some sort of berry. The colour varies from a lurid purple (blackcurrants) to the calm, pale green of a summer afternoon in Midsomer Norton (stewed gooseberries), and every shade of pink – from cupcake icing to the mother-in-law's wedding outfit. Much will depend on the ratio of fruit to yogurt. A rhubarb smoothie can come in any colour from marshmallow to liquidised frog. All offer a delicious wake-up call.
Whether I am making a smoothie, a fool or an ice, my goal is always to capture the true flavour of the berry. I have a few tricks up my sleeve to get through that annoying muffling effect the dairy produce can so often have on your fruit. Even the most tasty little Florence or Julia strawberry will have to fight a hard battle if it is not to get lost once it is churned with sugar and cream into a pink summer ice. A shot of lemon juice will bring out the flavour, as will a little grated orange zest. Curiously, a few raspberries will boost the strawberries' intensity (they often carry more acidity, which acts like a squirt of lemon). Berries that are warm will sing louder than those straight from the fridge, so I tend to take them out the night before I intend to use them; waiting till they are ever so slightly over-ripe helps, too. The black pepper trick is much more difficult to perfect than you might think: one pinch of ground spice too many and you have turned your smoothie into a liquid curry. I tend not to take that route at all.
A few drops of balsamic vinegar will breathe life into even the least promising piece of red fruit, and can often make a good strawberry into a great one. Just cut the fruit in half, toss with a light sprinkling of sugar (a teaspoon per 200g will do), add a few drops of bog-standard balsamic and leave in a warm place for an hour. The flavour will be just as if they had been sitting in the sun for an extra day.
Strawberry and elderflower sorbetStrawberries, fresh garden mint and frothy white elderflowers are the very essence of early summer and work nicely as a threesome. The flowers can be turned into a refreshing cordial with water, lemons, sugar and a suitable acidulator. I find the widely available cordial from the hands of artisan producers invaluable and something I keep in the fridge all summer long for cold, non-alcoholic drinks with slices of lime and ice cubes. Serves 4-6.
For the sorbet
125g caster sugar
juice of half a lemon
For the syrup
75ml elderflower cordial
15 small mint leaves
To make the sorbet, put the sugar in a saucepan with the water and bring to the boil. You can remove it from the heat as soon as the sugar has dissolved and set aside to cool.
Rinse and hull the strawberries then whiz them in a blender or food processor till smooth. Add the lemon juice, then stir the strawberry purée into the cold sugar syrup. Now either pour the mixture into an ice cream machine and churn till frozen, or pour into a freezer box and place in the freezer.
Leave for a good couple of hours then remove, and beat the freezing edges into the middle with a whisk. Refreeze for a further two hours then beat once more, again bringing in the ice crystals from the outside into the middle. Return to the freezer till firm.
Make the syrup by cutting the strawberries in half and putting them in a bowl with the elderflower cordial. Chop the mint leaves finely and stir them into the cordial and berries. Cover, refrigerate and leave for a good 30 minutes for the flavours to marry.
To serve, place scoops of the sorbet into small bowls, then spoon over the berries and their mint and elderflower syrup.
A warm strawberry and gooseberry jamI do make traditional long-life summer jams, but more fun, I think, are jams you serve freshly made to trickle over scones, or for dipping toast or warm madeleines into. They contain less than half the sugar you need for a preserve that has to keep till winter, and the short cooking time gives a fresher flavour. My inclusion of gooseberries makes everything sing. This makes a couple of jars, and will keep in the fridge for several days.
250g granulated sugar
2 tbsp lemon juice
Rinse and hull the strawberries, but don't dry them. Top and tail the gooseberries. Pile the fruits into a stainless steel or enamel pan with the sugar and lemon juice. Crush the fruit with your hands or a potato masher, then place the pan over a low to medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes, spooning off the pink froth as you go. The jam should be thick enough to fall slowly from the spoon, like syrup, but nowhere near thick enough to set.
Pour into a bowl and serve with scones (where it will drip down your fingers), or slices cut from a sponge cake, or spoon over goat's yogurt, or stir into a mess of whipped cream and crumbled meringue. Just don't expect it to set.
Cook's notesStrawberries account for 80% of the soft fruit grown in the UK (a shame when you consider the rarity of gems like the loganberry). And, of that figure, the vast majority are the Elsanta variety, a hybrid created in 1975, notable for its high yields and shipping quality rather than its taste. To find fragrant, vibrant berries, go to farmers' markets or pick-your-own farms, which are not so preoccupied with shelf life.
Email Nigel at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit guardian.co.uk/profile/nigelslater for all his recipes in one place