Up until the 18th century, strawberries in France were very small-sized like a raspberry, so consequently, no one was very impressed with such a tiny fruit.
One November morning in 1712, Amédée-François Frézier from Brittany left the port of Saint-Malo for a two-year mission in South America. While there, he discovered on the coasts of Chili, huge strawberries (Fragaria Chiloenis) that were the size of walnuts. Two years later, he put five of the strawberry plants in his suitcase and returned with them to the port of Marseille. (The customs were very lenient in those days.)
He was able to save three of the plants and put them in his garden in the city of Plougastel in Brittany. A little while later, he was received by King Louis XIV, who congratulated him on his success and rewarded him with 1,000 écus. The “Sun King” absolutely adored strawberries and devoured them. He was finally forbidden by his doctor, Fagon, to eat them anymore as he was unable to control his consumption and ate them until he had indigestion on a daily basis.
The Southwest is the principle region of production for strawberries in France. The gariguette is the most popular from the SW region. It is available during the months of April and May. It is long, brilliant red and has an exceptional flavor. Strawberries are also produced in the regions of Aquitaine, Provence, vallée de Rhône, Val de Loire, Bretagne and the east of France. There are many varieties including la pajaro, l’elsanta, la seascape, la selva and la cogaline (which has the taste of wild raspberries).
The French adore strawberries! They serve them just sprinkled with a little sugar, lemon juice and a few mint leaves. Another traditional favorite is to sprinkle them with sugar and let them marinate several hours in a little red wine. (A favorite recipe of my French mother-in-law.) Today’s recipe is for Charlotte aux fraises. This wonderful dessert is made with cream, strawberries and ladyfingers. The recipe requires one day of refrigeration but it is well worth the wait!
Remember, strawberries are very fragile. To store them, place a towel on a large plate and set the strawberries, one by one, on the towel. Pull up the corners of the towel to cover them. Place them in a dark place if you plan to consume them the same day. If not, place them in the lower part of the refrigerator. The humidity will be absorbed by the towel. You can also keep them up to two days in the refrigerator by putting them on a plate covered with plastic wrap. For best flavor, remove them from the refrigerator one hour before serving. Wash them rapidly under cold water. Do not soak them or else they will lose their flavor.
Charlotte aux fraises
Strawberries, cream and ladyfingers
For 6 persons
Preparation and cooking time: 45 minutes
Refrigeration time: 24 hours
- 1 cup milk
- 1⁄2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1⁄2 cup + 4 tbsp. sugar
- 1/8 tsp. salt
- 3 egg yolks
- 1 envelope unflavored gelatin
- 1/3 cup water
- 3 pints strawberries
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 15 ladyfingers
- 1 cup whipping cream
- juice of one lemon
For the cream:
Over medium heat, mix the milk, vanilla extract, 3 tbsp. sugar and salt. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Quickly whisk in the egg yolks. Place back on the heat and stir constantly until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat before it boils. Dissolve the gelatin in 1/3 cup water. Mix it into the hot milk/egg mixture. Let cool until it thickens. Refrigerate if necessary.
Wash 1 pint of the strawberries and remove the stems. Dry them and roll in sugar. Lightly butter the sides (not the bottom) of a charlotte mold or soufflé mold or round salad bowl (12 inches in diameter). Arrange 12 ladyfingers in it vertically. (The round sides against the side of the mold.) Sprinkle 1 tbsp. sugar in the bottom of the mold to make the unmolding easier.
Beat the whipping cream until it thickens and clings to the beaters. Remove the cream (previously made) from the refrigerator. Beat it if it has started to jell. Now, delicately fold the whipped cream into the cream. Use a rubber scraper to get a mousse-like texture. Pour a little of the mixed creams into the mold with the ladyfingers. Now add some strawberries. Continue to layer with cream and strawberries up to the top of the mold. Cover the top with the three remaining lady fingers. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
To make the strawberry purée:
Wash the remaining 2 pints of strawberries. Reserve 10 for garnishing. Beat the strawberries together with 1/2 cup sugar and lemon juice.
Dip the bottom of the mold in warm water for a few seconds. Turn it upside down over a round dish to unmold. Garnish with the reserved strawberries. Pour a little berry purée over the charlotte. Put the remaining purée in a sauce boat and serve along with the charlotte.