I’m so glad I made a concerted effort to get the preserving garden allotment sorted out earlier in the season. I’ve been distracted for the last few weeks so the plot has been neglected and there’s now much weeding to be done to make it all neat and tidy again. But sometimes a break is necessary if only to accept that to some degree, what will be will be. Now comes the payoff. The berries are ripening and my longed for supply of strawberries has become a reality.
The other day I picked my first substantial batch and there should be several more punnets full to come in the next few weeks. The bulk of my plants are Cambridge Favourite, which I chose as a classic jam making variety. Planted autumn 2009, there was no fruit to speak of last year and the plants sent out lots of runners, some of which I encouraged to root and establish. The plan was that this year would be the first season to expect any fruit and I’m not disappointed.
The rule of strawberry picking is to chose a warm dry day for it and, of course, to eat as many berries, warmed by the sun, as you can, right there and then. These berries are just so sweet and packed with flavour. When picked that warmth quickly ‘cooks’ them and they lose their polished look in moments once they are detached from the plant, so you need to get them cooled fast. Even after my seasonal binge there were still 3 kilos of fruit to take home to preserve.
I plan to make jam with subsequent pickings but for this first load I wanted to can compote and syrup, using my harvest as fresh as possible to capture this exceptional flavour. Strawberries aren’t highly rated for bottling as they overcook fast but making compotes to eat out of season to serve with yogurt or vanilla cheesecake or a simple sponge cake with cream …. well, that does it for me. This is were canning makes such sense. Jam is usually overladen with sugar and jam makers often complain that they have far too much of it to consume, but compote can contain much less sugar, so the flavour of the fruit shines through and by water processing it, you can then stock the pantry with jars that will keep throughout the year ahead.
With canning generally, it is important to use jars that are a size that suits how many people you feed. I like to use smallish jars so once opened I know none will go to waste. My next door neighbours brought me these Le Parfait Familia Wiss 350ml jars back from France recently so they looked to be just perfect for the job. I canned the left-over syrup in a 250ml sized Weck flask and there is another half flask, in the fridge for using up now.
The berries need to be macerated with sugar overnight so their lovely juice is drawn out, turning the sugar to syrup at the same time. I wasn’t sure how much syrup the berries would produce but there was enough left over to bottle on its own. This syrup is just fab stirred through Greek yogurt and I’ll be churning some vanilla ice cream soon to make another perfect partnership. The compote will go with just about anything.
STRAIGHT-LACED STRAWBERRY COMPOTE
Makes 6 x 350ml (7 x 1/2 pint) jars compote, plus approx 375ml (3/4 pt) strawberry syrup
3Kg (6 1/2lbs) strawberries
350g (12oz) sugar (adjust to your taste)
2 vanilla pods
1Tbsp balsamic vinegar
Rinse and drain the fruit if you must! As I knew exactly where my fruit came from and that it had been mulched with straw to keep the berries clean and off the soil, I didn’t wash the fruit … so you choose! Remove the stalks and halve the largest berries then place in a large glass or ceramic bowl, sprinkling the sugar in layers between the fruit as you go. Split the vanilla pods and scrape out the sticky seeds then bury the pods and stir the seeds in amongst the berries. Cover the bowl with cling film or a plate and leave in a cool place or the fridge overnight.
Prepare the water bath, jars and lids for canning*. Pour the fruit, sugar, vanilla and any juice into a preserving pan. Warm it through stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. Add the balsamic vinegar then bring all to a simmer and cook through for 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon or sieve remove the berries and vanilla pods from the syrup into a warm bowl. This way the softened berries will still be surrounded by syrup. (Some fruit pulp will remain in the syrup. If you want to make a smoother syrup from your left-overs then pass it through a sieve.) Cut each vanilla pod into 3 then using a jam funnel, pack the strawberries into the jars, to come just below the headroom line for the type of jars you are using. Push a piece of vanilla pod down the side of each jar so it shows against the glass. Top up with hot syrup from the pan if necessary, so the berries are submerged.
De-bubble the fruit around the sides of the jar using a narrow spatula or chop stick to release any trapped air bubbles, wipe the jar rims clean and seal. Water process for 10 minutes then remove from the water bath and leave till cold. Check the seals and label your jars ready to store. If any of your seals fail, use the compote as if fresh*.
For the remaining syrup in the pan, bring to a brisk boil for 5 minutes till the syrup is slightly thickened or to your liking. Pour into hot jars to the headroom line appropriate for your type of jar (Weck flasks can be filled almost to the top), tap the jar on the counter to release any trapped air bubbles, wipe rims and seal. Process for 10 minutes then remove from water bath and leave till cold before testing seals are fixed.
*If you don’t intend to water process the compote and syrup it should keep, if refrigerated, for about a week.