Sláinte! Ireland: It’s the Berries!
If you ever visit Ireland during the month of June, it’s tempting to maximize summer’s daylight hours and ramble until the sun goes down. Not a good idea. In the island’s northern latitude, sunset is a nighttime rather than evening affair. This is especially true in mid-June when the sun doesn’t set on the Emerald Isle until almost 10:00 p.m. and by that time most kitchens are closed tighter than an oyster.
I learned this lesson the hard way. I was traveling through Wexford and it had been a glorious day. Overcast in the morning, but the sun broke through just shy of noon. The countryside was so rich with shades of green that I actually tried counting how many I could spot. With golden sunshine creating postcard views at every turn, I was tempted to dawdle. But my ‘must see’ schedule was so tight I dutifully barreled on to each next destination, not even pausing to grab a pub lunch.
Angels must have been looking after me. Around a bend in a particularly snaky and unpopulated stretch of road, I came across a lone fellow selling strawberries. “Just the ticket,” I thought. “A fruit snack will hold me until dinner.” Compared to the giant California strawberries I was used to, his petite fruits looked puny, but I purchased a pint. One bite told the tale. The basket of incredibly sweet and fragrant berries disappeared in less than a mile, so I sped back to the vendor and bought half a flat!
County Wexford, Ireland’s premier soft fruit growing district, is known as “The Sunny Southeast” because it receives more sunshine and less rainfall than any other part of the country. The county is renowned for its strawberries, and although production weighs in at more than 2,000 tons per year, most of the crop is consumed locally. During the annual Strawberry Festival in Enniscorthy (first weekend in June 2012), fairgoers will consume 15 tons of berries drenched in more than 1,500 gallons of sweet cream.
While Wexford’s strawberries are delicious eaten straight out of hand or strewn fresh on morning bowls of muesli, many are transformed into luscious jams, preserves and jellies. A favorite summer dessert, Strawberry Fool, dates from Norman times. The term ‘fool’ comes from the French ‘fouler’ meaning ‘to crush’ and the dessert is traditionally prepared from pureed berries mixed with whipped cream, vanilla custard, or a combination of the two. Fools can also be made with rhubarb, gooseberries, raspberries, plums or black currants whose tart flavors supply an excellent contrast to the rich cream.
As summer rolls on, wild raspberry patches and crab apple stands can be found tucked away in shady woodlands. While raspberries are prized for making ruby red preserves and the tart flavor they impart to fresh fruit desserts, crab apples are used mainly for making jelly, wine and a thick jam which is an excellent accompaniment to roast pork, duck or autumn goose.
In ancient Ireland, the July full moon marked the Feast of Lughnasa when Lugh, God of Light, held a wake to honor the death of his foster-mother Tailtu, Goddess of Agriculture. As the festival that celebrated the first gathering of earth’s autumn bounty, Lughnasa was the time when people could finally stop surviving on the meager remains from last year’s harvest and begin to bring in the new crops.
Since small landholders determined if they could begin raising a family based on the earnings they obtained from their crops, marriages were common after harvest-time. At the great Oenach Tailten Fair, which survived in County Meath until the late eighteenth century, the custom of a ‘Teltown marriage’ evolved. A wall was erected in which there was a hole big enough to admit a hand. Men and women passed on either side of the hole reaching through it and whoever grasped hands were considered married for nine months. At the end of that time if either party were dissatisfied, the trial marriage was canceled!
Lughnasa still marks the end of summer and the start of autumn on Ireland’s rural calendar. It’s the time when bilberries (also known as fraughans, blaeberries and blueberries) can be found growing wild on heather-covered mountainsides. Families hike into the hills to pick the sweet juicy berries, then with fingers and clothes stained forty shades of purple, everyone returns home to feast on potatoes, bacon, cabbage, and bowls of sugared bilberries and cream.
By late August, countless hedgerows along country roads begin producing tons of deep purple blackberries, and anyone with a mind to go picking will be rewarded with buckets full of plump fruit. Blackberry mousse is an elegant dessert, and blackberry sauce can be sweet or savory to complement ice cream and custards, or roast fowl and game. Combined with apples, blackberries make one of Ireland’s most popular desserts, a rich pastry tart. In years past, Irish cooks baked in the all-purpose cast iron black pots that sat atop smoldering turf fires and only diligent watching and turning kept their pies from becoming singed by the fierce heat of the glowing coals.
At the height of summer when Ireland’s strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries are all in season at once, these brilliantly hued fruits are frequently combined to make Summer Pudding, one of the world’s most strikingly beautiful and delicious desserts.
Although Americans associate the term ‘pudding’ with milk-based custards, Irish puddings often have a bread or crumb base and are baked, boiled or steamed — sometimes for hours. The most familiar are Christmas Plum Pudding, which is served flaming with a rich brandy sauce, and Bread Pudding, which is often accompanied with a whiskey sauce.
Summer Pudding is another story altogether. Made by layering bread slices with a mixture of lightly poached strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, it is not cooked at all, but simply left to sit until the berry juices have completely saturated the bread slices and colored them a brilliant shade of shocking pink. As the finale of a warm weather meal, Summer Pudding makes even a part-time cook look like a full-time culinary genius with hardly any effort at all!
On that memorable day when I first encountered the joy of Ireland’s summer fruits, the half-flat of berries I purchased by the side of the road held my appetite at bay for hours. Combined with my hectic touring schedule, I never noticed that daylight was lasting much longer than I was used to. With the sun lingering in a softly glowing sky, it was nearly 8PM when I realized how the time had flown. Pressing pedal to the metal, I hastened to my night’s lodging arriving only moments before the evening meal. Missing that feast of freshly caught baked salmon, sautéed wild greens, itty bitty buttered baby potatoes, and sublime strawberry shortcake would have been tragic. Sláinte!
3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons sugar
11⁄2 cups whole milk
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pint strawberries, hulled & coarsely chopped
1⁄2 cup whipping cream
Custard: In a medium stainless steel bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar then set aside. In a small heavy saucepan, combine the milk and vanilla and scald the milk until a skin forms on the surface. Remove the milk from the heat, skim off the scalded skin and gradually whisk the milk into the egg mixture. Suspend the bowl over a pot of simmering water and cook the custard, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, for about 5 minutes, until it begins to thicken. Do not let the custard boil. As soon as the custard is pudding thick, remove it from the heat and place the bowl in a large bowl of ice to immediately stop the cooking process. Cover the pudding bowl with plastic wrap to keep the surface from getting hard. Refrigerate until completely cooled.
Assembly: Set aside 3 large strawberries. Put the remainder in a small bowl and mash with a fork. Place the strawberry puree in a sieve and let drain for 15 minutes. While the puree is draining, pour the cream into a separate bowl and whip until stiff peaks form. Measure out 1 1/2 cups of custard into a large bowl and stir in the strawberry puree. Fold in the whipped cream. Put the Fool in serving glasses and chill for at least one hour before serving. Decorate with strawberry halves. Makes 4-6 servings.
1 pint strawberries, hulled and quartered
1 pint raspberries
1 pint blueberries
1 pint blackberries
1⁄4 cup sugar
1 loaf sliced French bread, crusts removed
extra mixed berries for garnishing
Butter the inside of a large mixing bowl, and line with a sheet of plastic wrap. Line with bread slices as follows. Place one round of bread on the bottom of the bowl, and line the sides with bread slices taper-trimmed to fit vertically tight against each other. Set aside.
In a large saucepan, combine the fruits with the sugar. Warm over low heat until the berries soften and release their juices. Pour berries and juice into the bread-lined bowl. Cover the surface completely with additional bread slices. Place a small plate on top of the pudding, and set a weight on it (a medium jar filled with water and capped works nicely). Put the pudding in the refrigerator and let sit for 24 hours, siphoning off and saving juices as they rise to the surface. Just before serving, siphon off any last bit of juice then place a large plate on top of the bowl and invert the pudding onto the plate. Carefully remove the plastic wrap making sure not to dislodge any of the bread slices. Garnish the plate with extra mixed berries. Present the pudding whole and cut into pie-shaped wedges to serve. Place each pudding wedge on a dessert plate and surround with reserved pudding juice. Makes 8 servings.
Note: Summer Pudding is lovely served with a custard sauce. Follow the custard directions given in the Fool recipe, but remove from heat as soon as the custard begins to thicken and coats the back of a spoon. The custard can be made 24 hours ahead if kept covered and refrigerated.
Quick Strawberry Shortcake
1 pint strawberries, hulled, chopped and sugared
1 package purchased shortcake rounds (4 units)
1 pint heavy whipping cream sugar
Beat whipping cream until thick and fluffy. Add sugar to taste. Place shortcake rounds on individual dessert plates. Ladle strawberries over. Scoop generous amount of whipped cream on strawberries. Top with another spoonful of strawberries. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 shortcakes.