x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Strawberries on the brain

Observing life: Wimbledon has made my year for strawberries, but the passing on of my grandmother's jam recipe, finally, has made me feel sad.

For the past couple of weeks, I've been preoccupied with strawberries. Wimbledon was the obvious catalyst for this and then I happened to read an article online announcing that, thanks to an unusually warm start to the summer, the UK was experiencing a strawberry glut. Supermarket shelves and farmers' markets are apparently overflowing with the most quintessentially English of all fruits.

This bumper crop is, according to my mother, grandmother and sister (strawberry aficionadas, all three), sweeter and juicier than ever before, a factor that they attribute to the early sunshine.

Between them they have spent several minutes of expensive telephone conversations waxing lyrical about dunking the heart-shaped fruit into molten dark chocolate, sandwiching it between layers of Victoria sponge and drowning whole berries in pools of cold white cream. I think perhaps, at the back of their minds, they imagine that these gastronomic tales might inspire me to board the next plane home in search of a fruity fix. And they are not far wrong.

My love for strawberries goes back a long way. When we were young, my sister and I looked forward to a trip to the local "pick your own" farm with the same fervent excitement that other children associated with visiting a theme park or going to the cinema.

Once unleashed amid the rows of strawberry plants, we adhered to a strict, nimble-fingered work ethic: one for the basket, one for us. The little pot of caster sugar that we snuck into the farm one year was, as far as I'm concerned, a stroke of childhood genius. It was only when my mother clocked what we were doing and told us that not only would the farm owners be weighing our punnets when we left, but also us (to determine just how many we'd eaten on the go) that we began to worry. Strawberries aren't just about summer, though. For me, the major draw was always the thought of the homemade jam that my grandma brought to the breakfast table in the middle of winter. Every year, I'd help her make that jam, weighing out the sugar or picking the leaves from the berries, watching the mixture slowly transform into a syrupy, dark red, unctuous mass.

As I got older and became more interested in cooking, I tried unsuccessfully to wheedle the recipes out of her, but she steadfastly refused to divulge her secrets. That is, until a few days ago, when I opened an airmail envelope containing a familiar slip of sticky, battered-around-the-edges paper, complete with handwritten notes.

I know what this gesture means and it makes me feel sad; Grandma's getting older and she's passing the baton on. Now it's my turn to get the preserving pan out.