The robinia tree at the bottom of the garden has at last burst into a soft froth of green leaves. From the middle of May till late autumn its branches provide shade for the garden table; a romantic, dappled light under which to eat a summer lunch, or better still, take tea. The tree's open branches and pale green light are just the thing under which to dip a spoon into a gooseberry fool.
Some food seems all the better eaten in a cool corner of a garden, on a balcony, or by an open window. Recipes for the stillness of summer. In our house there would be calls for desserts of ripe fruit and thick cream; fools, strawberry trifles and bowls of berries with mild French and Italian cream cheeses.
Early in the season I like my fruits naked, preferably straight from the garden: raspberries from the cane, strawberries from the plant, still warm from the sun, and with no cream to sully their scarlet juice. Other days, perhaps when the soft fruit season is up and running, something creamy-sweet and soft as duck down seems to tease out their flavour best.
Faced with a punnet of the ripest early berries, a jug of chilled double cream is enough. The best cream, unpasteurised and unsweetened, is increasingly difficult to find. Farm shops, farmers' markets and health food stores are a better hunting ground than the supermarkets if you want the real thing, with all its piquancy and character intact.
Other times I want something more voluptuous. Perhaps a cream that is thicker, sharper, or perhaps a little sweeter than pure double cream. That is when the soft fresh cheeses and cultured creams come into their own. Sweetened whipped creams in calm, white folds; tart little pots of yogurt and creme fraiche; elegant mounds of fromage blanc lightened with beaten egg whites. Imagine bringing a bowl of ripe fruit to a table in the garden - raspberries, strawberries, stewed gooseberries or currants, and at their side a cream whose name should be spoken in a whisper: fromage blanc, creme Chantilly, syllabub, crema alla mascarpone, coeur a la creme. Soft, fragile and delicate, like their names.
You can have a lot of fun playing with mixtures of dairy produce, finding the right cream for the right berries (or sponge cake, or poached fruit). The blander the berry, the sharper I reckon its accompanying cream needs to be, so creme fraiche, or perhaps a half-and-half of that and yogurt, is just right with strawberries. With those fruits that make your lips pucker, such as gooseberries and currants, a sweeter recipe seems more appropriate, say a mascarpone cream or some classic creme Chantilly.
Fattening? Why, hell yes. But who honestly cares when summer is so short, and that cool table in the shade becomes more vital with each passing year.
This custardy golden cream goes perfectly with poached gooseberries or blackcurrants. I simply tip the fruit into a pan with a little sugar and water, and let it simmer gently till it bursts. I then let the fruit cool a little, or even chill, before serving it alongside the mascarpone cream. Serves 4-6 as an accompaniment.
2 large eggs
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp of Marsala
Separate the eggs.Put the sugar in with the yolks and beat until it is thoroughly mixed. Beat in the mascarpone till you have a creamy, custard-coloured cream. Stir in the Marsala - and don't add any more. With a clean whisk, beat the egg whites till they stand stiff, then fold them into the creamed mascarpone. Cover with clingfilm and chill for a good 30 minutes.
The lightest cream I make, a perfect accompaniment for strawberries or sponge cake. Enough for 6.
150ml double cream
100ml thick natural yogurt
1 large egg white
icing sugar (about 1 tbsp)
Chill a large mixing bowl, then pour in the cream and beat till it will stand in soft folds. Gently fold in the yogurt. Beat the egg white till it will stand in stiff peaks, then fold it tenderly into the cream and yogurt.Taste, then add icing sugar as you wish. Chill, then use within an hour or so. Les cremets
There are several options with this recipe.You can use just double cream, fromage frais (full fat), creme fraiche, or a mixture of any two, depending on what sort of piquancy you want.My favourite is a mixture of fromage frais and creme fraiche, a rich but fresh accompaniment to strawberries, and perfect with fraises de bois. Serves 4.
300g fromage frais
150ml creme fraiche
2 egg whites
to serve: 'wild' strawberries, a little double cream
Line a stainless-steel sieve or colander with clean, new muslin, leaving enough overhanging to fold over the top. In a cold bowl, mix the fromage frais and creme fraiche thoroughly but gently. Beat the egg whites in a separate bowl till light and stiff. Fold the egg whites into the creams, taking care not to knock the air out. (A large metal spoon is good for this.) Spoon the mixture into the lined sieve. Fold the muslin over the top, place the sieve over a basin and leave in the fridge overnight. The next day, unmould the cream, which will have shrunk and become more solid. Serve in spoonfuls alongside the fruit, with a little double cream poured over.
A summer delight, made in minutes. The point of the vinegar is purely to deepen the flavour of the berries, but it should remain undetectable. I have previously served this as a dressing for raspberries. It sounds too much, but tastes of the very essence of summer. Serve with something crisp - thin, crisp shortbread or one of those posh almond biscuits. Serves 3-4.
a little balsamic vinegar
150ml double cream
175ml thick, natural yogurt
Wash the berries, hull them, then blitz them to a puree with a few drops of balsamic vinegar. It will take just a few seconds in a food processor. In a chilled bowl, whip the cream until it sits in soft folds; it should be thick enough to keep its shape but not enough to stand in peaks. Gently fold the yogurt into the cream, then fold in the fruit puree. Stir so that all the ingredients are combined, but not so much that it becomes a monotone pink. Swirls are good. Chill for an hour or so before serving, preferably in long, thin glasses.