When I was a child, one of my favourite holiday treats was to stop at Mooiberge farm stall in Stellenbosch to buy a box brimful of freshly picked strawberries. Bright red and nectar sweet, I would devour them right there and then in the back seat of our old beat-up Mazda. We used to combine them with the most perfect accompaniment, a punnet of thick Jersey cream, into which we would dip the tip of each berry. This was back in the late 80s and 90s, when this now iconic farm stall was much smaller with only a handful of scarecrows to point the way.
It’s definitely not only nostalgia that makes me think that strawberries don’t taste as sweet as they used to. Mass produced, hurried harvests, far too many chemicals and cold storage produces giant strawberries that just don’t hit the mark, sour, plumped full of water yet utterly devoid of flavour. And don’t be fooled by all that red, in fact, the smaller and darker the berry, the sweeter its juice.
I waited 20 years before eating perfectly sun ripened strawberries again, and in the most unlikely of places. The beautiful town of Bedford lies a mere 100km from my home town of Grahamstown. This is the gateway to that mysterious expanse of semi-arid landscape that is called the Karoo. With a landscape that can be both arid and lush at the same time, the townspeople are mostly sheep and dairy farmers with some game farms dotted in between. I have such fond memories of the area as I spent a lot of time there visiting my dad on farm in the beautiful Kowie river valley a few kilometres outside town. And as an adult I love attending the Bedford Garden Festival as the local residents are renowned for their stately English style gardens with rose arbours, luxuriant flower beds and wide, shady verandas.
The one year I noticed that included on the packed programme for the festival breakfast was being served at one of the houses (sans garden). The hosts were Frans Mulder and Dave Robbins, a couple who brought a rather stylish, cosmopolitan air to the town I knew so well. I chose the option of eggs Benedict scattered with nigella seeds and served with a Black Russian- milk stout and Pongracz sparkling wine. Now how’s that for a breakfast? My friends and I didn’t really want to go anywhere after that… This was affixed by a proper espresso made in a Bialetti cafetiere. Looking around I saw that an old corrugated iron shed was the studio where Frans created his spectacular larger than life wildlife paintings. They also collected Mid Century Modern furniture with the ultimate classic being a lounger and ottoman by Charles and Ray Eames. In the industrial style kitchen, Frans showed me some beautiful fresh artichokes from their garden he had just preserved while I admired his collection of Hylton Nel plates, which he mixed up and used with his everyday crockery with a devil-may-care kind of way.
The following year I spotted a big banner waving in the breeze at the gate of their farm with cars driving down the driveway in their droves. Frans and Dave had planted strawberries and quite characteristically, were doing it quite unlike anybody else. I noticed that this varietal was smaller than usual and therefore sweeter. And the plants weren’t sprayed to within an inch of their lives and were allowed ample time to ripen in the sun.
The next step was to open De Tafel Osteria, inspired by rustic eateries in Italy where simple food is served at shared tables. This is where Frans experimented with a plethora of Mediterranean style dishes inspired by local produce. He also baked his own bread including a marvellous brioche with a spiral of buttery cinnamon sugar in the middle. But the single most memorable dish we had was in the heat of summer, on my birthday, just three days before Christmas. It was a homemade pizza that was actually more like a crisp flatbread on which was layered warthog carpaccio, a French style soft white cheese, wild rocket, black pepper and those marvellous strawberries in a homemade balsamic vinegar reduction. Simple ingredients and steadfast flavours but because of their exceptional quality and freshness, the combination was sublime.
One of Frans’ wonderful dishes was this marinated strawberry and white chocolate fraglite with orange, pepper and rose sorbet. Photo: Dave Robbins
That same day we took three punnets of strawberries home with us and I was inspired to make a classic pavlova for Christmas. We had been invited by my cousin to a very convivial sort of Christmas lunch: all the people she knew who had not gone away for Christmas but were still sticking around –the so called “loose threads” – had been invited. So in the true spirit of Christmas, a whole bunch of disparate people got together at a group of tables under the trees. Everybody brought their favourites. I made an old fashioned cut of pork called a Boston butt which I served with a typically Karoo accompaniment, a sweet mustard sauce. My partner J had been in charge of helping me the meringue for the pavlova but it was a struggle. We didn’t have any cooking spray and the meringue got stuck to the baking parchment. We also failed miserably to make a lovely round, fluffy shape, ending up with flattish oval with ragged edges. And of course, instead of ending up as a crisp, light white meringue it was all brown and chewy. But I didn’t want to waste those special strawberries so we stayed the course and didn’t give up. I macerated the berries in some Turkish fig balsamic reduction, a few grinds of black pepper, a couple of tablespoons of castor sugar and a secret favourite ingredient of mine- Angostura bitters, that aromatic mixer from Venezuela. We whipped cream, added vanilla powder to it and transported everything separately to assemble later.
When dessert was served I was not especially surprised to see that, once assembled, it looked more like Eton mess than pavlova. So I couldn’t really care less at that point. Luckily, because it was bring-and-share my pavlova was one of an array of other much more dependable desserts. But I had to do due diligence so I served myself a small portion, just to see how it turned out before tucking into the other delicious desserts. I took a bite and was truly completely bowled over. It was and always will be the Best Pavlova I Have Ever Eaten!
There is something so magical about making something that is really spectacularly good. It has only happened a couple of times in my life. There is a confluence of factors that line up for this to take place. Firstly, the ingredients have to be top quality, the freshest and the best you can get. Secondly either the people, or the place, or the atmosphere plays a big part. There is also a good dollop of intuition here, a moment where you just randomly add another ingredient which elevates everything (which is where the bitters came in). Thirdly, something has to go wrong. Because this is when you let go of your expectations and something else, something a whole lot better than you could ever imagine, happens.
But how to tell everyone else about this amazing pavlova, without looking like a complete show-off? I first went to my family, I distinctly remember telling my mom, who isn’t exactly an enthusiastic dessert eater, that she really must try it. She said she would get some later. My dad hardly heard me at all, being embroiled in rather involved conversation, as is his wont. This lack of enthusiasm prompted me to go up to people I didn’t know at all with wide, crazy eyes, brandishing my spoon and urging them to eat it before it all got devoured. “It’s quite remarkable…” I said. You must try this pavlova…” “Oh, who made it?” someone asked. “I did… but that’s not why, but it really is exceptional but not because I made it!”
And yet it was just a pavlova, and a regular sized one at that. So hardly anyone got to eat it. And those who did of course combined it with the other puddings so its delicate magnificence was marred, like salads thrown together at a buffet or puddings squelched together at a church fête. The only person who got what I was getting at was J, who may be much more introverted than I am but also tried to urge everyone to try it. And sure as punch, the next thing it had been eaten up completely. And my mom and my dad hadn’t even tasted it!
“But make it again…” you my cry from the side lines. “It’s only a pavlova, three ingredients, it’s simple…” The crux of the tale, really, is about how you can hardly ever recreate a magical experience. You are most welcome to macerate strawberries in the ingredients I described but I don’t expect you get the same results.
So herewith, to herald the sweetness of Summer, the same classic combination of strawberries, cream and meringue but in ice cream form. Bon appétit!
Strawberries ‘n cream ice cream
The custard base used in this recipe is inspired by biochemist Tapiwa Guza who creates amazing ice creams with unusual African ingredients. He shared a recipe with me that uses corn starch as the main stabiliser, which makes for a foolproof, beautifully smooth ice cream. You can check out Tapi Tapi desserts to discover more of his marvellous creations.
After making the custard, I was quite surprised at how moreish it was, realising that, duh! If the base is that good, the ice cream will turn out beautifully, which luckily it did as it was the first time I have ever made ice cream! I used a vintage churn from the 1970s I picked up at an auction that is cranked by hand. Serve this ice cream with chunks of meringue folded in at the last minute or crumbled on top.
300ml full cream milk
2 heaped tablespoons maize starch (Maizena)
1 large free range egg
50g castor sugar
1 vanilla pod, split
Two pinches of sea salt
250 g strawberries
2 T Turkish fig balsamic reduction
A few shakes of Angostura bitters (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 T sweetened pomegranate syrup
2 tsp castor sugar
Soak the strawberries in a large bowl of cold water so that any grit falls to the bottom of the bowl. Rinse, hull and halve the berries and sprinkle with the castor sugar. Pour over the pomegranate syrup, balsamic reduction and bitters (if using) and evenly coat the strawberries by gently shaking the bowl. Cover and refrigerate.
Pour the milk into a saucepan and place over medium heat. Using a small knife, split the vanilla pod and scrape the seeds out, whisking them into the milk along with the sugar. Add the pod and slowly bring the milk to a boil and add the maize starch, whisking vigorously. Allow to thicken then remove from the heat. Quickly whisk in the egg, cream and salt. Allow to cool.
Stir the strawberries and their juices into to the cooled custard and churn according to instructions.
Serve with halved fresh strawberries and crushed meringue, either folded into the ice cream or crumbled on top.