When I returned to India in the mid-1980s, strawberries were a rare sight in most cities. They came from hill stations such as Mahabaleshwar and Munnar and from the Kumaon and, by the time they reached Delhi, Bangalore or Mumbai, they were in a pretty poor state. Most people, even the well-heeled, didn’t have a clue what to do with them. I remember serving them at the launch of my Salad Bar in Mumbai in 1989: a plate of beautifully-selected, ruby-red fruit with champagne, which at the time I thought was a very glamorous thing to do at lunchtime. On the table, we also served harissa chilli dip with some crackers. And people were actually photographed dipping the strawberries into the dip and relishing it.
Strawberries are native to North America and came to Europe only in the early 17th century. The French have a wonderful, albeit ugly, little variety called fraise de bois, which are wild and have the most divine, intense flavour. The famous English strawberries and cream culinary tradition often looks better than it tastes. If the strawberries are not super sweet, the dish can be a let down (unless, of course, you cheat and sugar your fruit beforehand when nobody is looking).
Strawberries are now cultivated in Israel and southern Spain and all over Australia, so that they are available all year round almost everywhere in the world. Size is definitely not an indication of quality. We were once travelling by Emirates and were served the most obscene-sized strawberries. In fact, everyone thought they were artificial. Alas, they tasted artificial, too.
I am shocked to see strawberries on handcarts now in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, sold not by the tiny punnet, but by the kilo! Our strawberries, grown mainly from a Californian strain in Mahabaleshwar, I am reliably informed, are juicy and flavoursome. They are fabulous eaten as is, with cream or ice cream. They make an outstanding jam and conserve (a jam that has at least 50% fruit) and they also make a great strawberry liqueur. Just wash and hull them (take off the green bit) and place them in a large glass jar with a lid. For half a kilo of strawberries, sprinkle 250g sugar and pour in a litre of vodka. Shake or stir every day until the sugar dissolves completely. Serve chilled with or without the strawberries. This makes a great bar syrup, too. You can also make something called Strawberries Romanov by adding half the quantity orange juice to strawberries, a little sugar and Cointreau. This results in superb-tasting strawberries, which you can serve as a dessert the following day.
This is my recipe for a light and refreshing strawberry mousse, which uses neither cream nor egg white and is, therefore, extremely quick and easy.
Light strawberry mousse
1-½ cups water
1 cup sugar
4 cups fresh strawberries
2 tbsp gelatin
1 cup fresh hung curd (hung for a few hours, not overnight)
A few mint leaves for decoration
Boil water and sugar to make a light syrup. Add strawberries and set aside to infuse overnight if possible, or at least for 2 hours. Puree the mixture. Dissolve gelatin in a little cold water. Keep in a warm place until the gelatin is melted. Add to the puree. Mix well. Beat in the hung curd. Place in a serving bowl or in six individual, small dishes and leave to set in the fridge for at least an hour. Decorate the mousse with mint leaves and sliced, fresh strawberries and, if you’re really not bothered about the calories, serve with whipped cream.
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