[Photo: ©2010, Jared Brown]
FIRST THE STRAWBERRIES
It's our first year in the new garden so we've planted Cambridge Favourites. Born and bred in the UK, this varietal are great for making purées, garnishes, shrubs, ratafias, and punch jellies (read: 19th century jelly shots).
Don't bother starting strawberries from seed unless you are a masochist! There are plenty of places to buy healthy young plants from including the Burford Garden Company . We also bought young crowns with no blossoms from Unwins .
Cambridge Faves are a summer fruiting strawberry, so we carefully planted our new arrivals in early April, using plenty of rich compost in the holes. because our area of the Cotswolds has a late frost end date, we nurtured our plants under Victorian bell cloches until mid-May.
Whether you transplant them into a patio container or outdoors in a garden or an allotment, choose a sunny spot that's sheltered from the wind. The trick to planting strawberries (yes, there is one) is to leave the growing crown above the soil level. Don't let any roots show, just the crown portion. If you purchased your plants in pots, plant them to the same depth as they were in the pot.
You plants will need lots of water to establish their roots. That should take about a month. Then they should be OK on their own until fruiting time. When those lovely white blossoms turn into little green swelling fruits, make sure you start watering them again.
This is also a good time to protect your berries from touching the ground. Cover the soil around each plant with straw or a mulching mat to prevent this. If you don't you'll have rotten fruit instead of a bumper crop.
Strawberries are not as easy to harvest as you may think. Pick them when there’s still a bit of white on the fruit and you’ll never experience their full flavour. Pick them a little later and you might end up with mushy fruit when you freeze them. Harvest your berries daily or at least every other day in the early morning whilst the berries are cool. Never pull or pick the berries from their stems, simply pinch the stem between your thumb and forefinger so that you only take a short piece of the stem along with your fruit. Place the berries in shallow containers and don't keep them in direct sunlight for more than 10 to 15 minutes.
Common sage is our favourite herb to use in Pineapple & Sage Margaritas, a few shrubs, and we won't discuss how valuable this herb is for cooking. (Our favourite sage dish involves thin calve's liver and plenty of frizzled sage.)
Again, unless you like to watch paint dry, don't bother starting your sage from seed. Buy a healthy young plant and transplant it out when the danger from frost is over. (We stuck ours in our mini greenhouse until late May just to be on the safe side.)
What's really nice about sage is that the plant will keep providing you with fragrant leaves for about 3 years before it looses its potency. So be kind to your sage. Don't over water it. It's a Mediterranean plant. Read: prefers dry conditions.
That's why now, there’s another plant that’s ready to harvest—sage. Those silvery-green, woolly leaves are best harvested before the plant’s purple flowers bloom. You can cut the stalks off of half of the plant without harming it and save the rest for picking a few leaves here and there during the rest of the season. After you’ve picked strawberries, prune your sage during mid-morning, after the dew dries off but before the afternoon sun wilts the leaves.
WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR HARVEST
Head straight into the kitchen and make a summer shrub that’s ideal for swizzles and fizzes. Don’t forget to save a few berries and sage leaves for garnish!
STRAWBERRY AND SAGE SHRUB
8 parts fresh, ripe strawberries
4 parts white wine vinegar
2 parts caster sugar
2 parts water
1 part fresh sage leaves, crushed
In a medium pot, combine sugar and water. Stir to dissolve and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for a few minutes. Add berries and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add vinegar and bring to a boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, add sage, and let it rest for about an hour. Strain mixture through a fine sieve. Bottle and refrigerate for future use.
Shrub has been part of the British drinking vocabulary since the days of Queen Anne (1615-1714). It was a fine way to preserve the fruity goodness of hard-to-find citrus in the centuries before rapid transit. Rum or brandy was mixed with sugar and citrus peel plus juice and allowed to age in bottles for a few months. Before long the recipe repertoire spanned further than citrus to include local fruits, especially soft fruits such as blackcurrant and bramble. Even into Dickens’ day, shrubs were a delightful and affordable treat. Modern mixologists such as Nick Strangeway, Toby Cecchini, and Jamie Boudreau have been resurrecting shrub recipes such as the colonial-era one we’ve detailed here, mixing it with rum, tequila, bourbon, and other spirits in both long and short drink concoctions.
Don’t stop there. Ratafia is another treat that you can cook up with any and all of your soft fruits.
1 kilogram of fresh strawberries
0.5 litre water
2 kilograms caster sugar
3 litres water
1 litre brandy
Combine berries and half litre of water in a large kettle. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Strain into another pot and add sugar, dissolved with 3 litres of water. Stir until clear and then add brandy. Bottle.