Today was a gorgeous sunny spring day with a heat that promised summer. I love how the Devon countryside comes to life in spring in a bright, mismatched patchwork of greens, oranges and yellows as fields of wheat, barley and rapeseed flourish under the sun and the lambs grow fat grazing on lush grass. I never fail to marvel out how this season transforms what for months has been a sodden, dreary Devon landscape into one of fruitful abundance as flowers blossom, crops thrive and fruit grows juicy.
According to Ovid, there was once a Golden Age when the earth was uncultivated, yet brought forth fruit in abundance and the world was in a state of perpetual spring:
‘The earth was equally free and at rest, untouched by the hoe, unscathed by the ploughshare, supplying all needs from its natural resources. Content to enjoy the food that required no painful producing, men simply gathered arbutus fruit and mountain strawberries, cornel cherries and blackberries plucked from the prickly bramble, acorns too which they found at the foot of the spreading oak tree. Spring was the only season.’
– Metamorphoses 1.100-106
Central to this image is fruitfulness and fruit, and one of these is the strawberry, one of my favourite fruits – sweet, juicy and irresistible. Two types of strawberries were grown in ancient Italy: the arbutus fruit (arbutus unedo), grown from the evergreen strawberry tree whose fruit is edible, but bland; the name arbutus unedo supposedly came from Pliny the Elder’s description unum edo ‘I eat one’ because of its unpalatable taste (although I have it on good authority they make a fantastic brandy). It was cultivated in Roman gardens for its evergreen properties symbolically associated with immortality, as well as its brightly coloured red and yellow fruits and was depicted on frescoes, including one from the House of the Golden Bracelet.
The other was a wild variety found in the mountains, (Fragaria vesca) smaller and harder than the garden strawberry (Fragaria anassa) widely cultivated today, which was not grown until the late 18th century. As such, it was the wild strawberry later cultivated in Italian Renaissance gardens and used in Scappi’s dishes. As these are not readily available here and my local greengrocer has just started selling perfectly ripe Spanish garden strawberries which have proved a welcome substitute as I wait (impatiently!) for the British strawberry season to begin, I will be using these in Scappi’s strawberry crostata.
To prepare a crostata of visciola or morello cherries, strawberries, gooseberries or fresh verjuice grapes
Get viscola or morello cherries (or strawberries) that are not too ripe, without their stalk; pit them. Have a tourte pan ready with dough and wash the top with beaten egg white, immediately sprinkling it with sugar: that is done so that the juice will not penetrate into the pastry. Let it sit a while, then get the fruit, having coating it with sugar, cinnamon and musk-flavoured Neapolitan mostaccioli crumbled and mixed with beaten egg yolks: that is done in order to hold everything together. Put it all into the pan and cover it.
– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book VI
500g shortcrust pastry
2 eggs, separated
2 teaspoons cinnamon
- Pre-heat the oven to 180°C and line a tray with baking paper
- For the crostata shell, roll the pastry out to about 1cm thickness on a lightly floured surface
- Hull and chop the strawberries into halves, then place in a bowl and coat with sugar and cinnamon
- Brush with egg white and sprinkle with sugar
- Crumble the biscotti/ cantucci (using the good old bashing in a plastic bag with a rolling pin method!) and mixed with egg yolks, then spread evenly over the base of the pastry shell, leaving a 5cm border (for the sake of aesthetics, I’ve decided to put this on base of the pastry with the strawberries on top, rather than mixed in with the strawberries as the recipe dictates – sorry, Scappi!)
- Pile the strawberries onto the pastry shell and spread out evenly
- To form the crust, fold the edges of the pastry up over the strawberries, pleating it to encircle them
- Bake for 30-35 minutes until the pastry is golden
It never even occurred to me to make a crostata with strawberries and I must admit I am somewhat of a purist when it comes to summer fruits and berries, much preferring them uncooked to best enjoy their luscious summer flavours! Only occasionally do I add them to dessert and even then only as a raw ingredient and I have only ever cooked them in jam. As such, I did not expect to enjoy this dessert nearly as much as I did and I must confess I have been converted to having an appreciation for baked strawberries. The cinnamon and sugar drew the juices out of the strawberries during baking which soaked into the layer of biscotti underneath, making for a soft and velvety fruit filling that tasted indulgently sweet.