naso's song

that naso’s song may flower for all time


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Ovid’s Garden Party Review

We had a fantastic turn out for Ovid’s Garden Party on Saturday, which featured talks from myself, Miriam BayCultivating Narrative & Composing Landscape, and garden designer and bestselling author Kathryn AaltoCreating Gardens with Narratives, followed by performances of episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses by ancient Roman pantomime theatre group Avid for Ovid.

Ovid’s Garden Party marked the official opening of my garden project at Winterbourne House and Gardens, recreating the plantings of Italian Renaissance gardens inspired by ancient botany. Ovid’s Garden is a project that forms part of my PhD research in the Classics Department at the University of Birmingham, exploring the invocation of ancient myth, landscape and botany within Italian Renaissance gardens, transmitted through the writings of Roman mythographer Ovid.

In my talk, Cultivating Narrative & Composing Landscape, I discussed how both my PhD research and Ovid’s Garden were inspired by the idea of landscape as a living link to the past, as conveyed by novelist Margaret Drabble in A Writer’s Britain: Landscape in Literature:

‘The past lives on in art and memory, but it is not static: it shifts and changes as the present throws its shadow backwards. The landscape also changes, but far more slowly; it is a living link between what we were and what we have become.’

I was fascinated by this idea of landscape, and particularly plants, as a living link to antiquity, generating a physical, sensory experience as well as an intellectual, semiotic one. I was particularly drawn by the fact that the same plants cultivated since antiquity are still in cultivation today. This meant they have the potential to be experienced physically, just as they once were, whether for their aesthetic and olfactory properties in a garden setting; or practically, in food, medicine or cosmetics.

I wanted to create a space that could be used as a testing ground to look at the somatic properties of these plantings, in order to explore the sensory experience they generated, alongside their symbolic meaning. The plants grown in Ovid’s Garden represent those cultivated in antiquity, which were also popular features of Italian Renaissance gardens, valued for their aesthetic and practical properties or their symbolic associations.

Lavender lines the front of the garden, its name comes from the Latin lavare, ‘to wash’, as it was used to scent bath water in antiquity. In the two front flowerbeds there’s thyme, rosemary, sage, borage and pennyroyal mint — common herbs used in cooking from antiquity to this day.

In the two flowerbeds at the back of the garden, poet’s narcissus, hyacinths, violets and anemones flower in the spring, as well as saffron crocus in the autumn. The story of Narcissus is well known, the youth who was transformed into a pale daffodil after wasting away with longing for himself, but these other flowers also represent young men who have undergone metamorphosis. From the blood of Hyacinthus, fatally wounded by his lover Apollo’s discus, springs a flower whose petals are inscribed with the god’s mourning cries. In the myth of Adonis, Venus causes an anemone springs to spring from youth’s blood, after he is mauled by a wild boar. Similarly, violets spring from the blood of dying Attis and the saffron crocus appears in place of the body of Crocus. In each myth, flowers signify the youths’ transient masculinity and fleeting lives: in the bloom of youth, their lives cut short before they have transitioned to maturity.

Summer flowering damask and centifolia roses are ancient cultivars, valued in antiquity for their strong scent and abundant petals, their fragrant essential oil was used in ritual, medicines, cosmetics, perfumes and cooking. White Madonna lilies, red poppies and orange calendulas bloom in mid summer — flowers which conjured meadows where girls picking flowers, like Europa and Persephone, were abducted by opportunistic deities. These flowers were used in ritual, medicine and cooking, and the poppy was particularly valued for the opium derived from its sap, as it is today.

Then we have evergreen cypresses, bay laurels and olive trees. According the Ovid, the nymph Daphne, transformed into a laurel to escape the amorous advances of Apollo; whilst cypresses were a symbol of mourning in antiquity, derived from the story of Cyparissus, another unfortunate youth who died in his prime and was transformed into the tree by Apollo.

As well as being a testing ground for my own research, I wanted Ovid’s Garden to be a public facing project, accessible to any one. To function as a living museum without glass cabinets, where any one, regardless of academic background or knowledge of antiquity, could experience this living link to the past.

Kathryn Aalto’s talk, Creating Gardens with Narratives, situated the intertwining of landscape and narrative which I discussed within a broader historical and contemporary context. Kathryn explored how physical landscapes are imbued with symbolism and meaning when a literary dimension is added to them:

Adding a literary dimension to the physical landscape imbues it with additional ‘sense of place’. What does that mean? To me, it’s that invisible layer of memories, history and emotions covering the real landscape we see in front of us. It’s like unseen but powerful strata. And it’s different for each of us. It’s important both in writing as well as designing. We are adding a new layer to our sense of Ovid’s work today, and to the sense of place he evoked in his writing.

You can read Kathryn’s talk on her blog.

Theatre group Avid For Ovid performed four inspirational pieces, each a collaboration between the dancers and musician Malcolm Atkins, who composed and performed music which supported the narrative of each piece. The performances were chosen to complement the garden setting:

We chose stories for this event that had outdoor locations which might be echoed by the real garden; thus Medea’s plant gathering, Circe’s herb garden, and the woods in which the nymphs Syrinx and Daphne flee their pursuers and are themselves transformed into plants.

The first performance was Medea Mother of Dragons, by Marie-Louise Crawley. Medea was the sorceress who aided the hero Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece and gave Jason herbs that put the dragon guarding the Fleece to sleep. Ovid recounts how Medea traveled the world in a chariot drawn by dragons, in order to procure a myriad of plants to brew a potion that extended Jason’s life.

Susie Crow performed Pan & Syrinx. Syrinx was a huntress nymph who fled the amorous advances of Pan – half god, half goat – and was transformed into hollow water reeds before Pan could seize her. The haunting sound of the wind blowing through the reeds inspired Pan to fashion the pan pipes.

Ségolène Tarte performed Circe the Enchantress. Circe was another sorceress, who Odysseus encountered on his wanderings. Circe brewed a potion from flowers and herbs that she tricked Odysseus’ men into drinking, transforming them into pigs.

The final episode, Apollo & Daphne was performed by Marie-Louise Crawley. Daphne was a nymph who was transformed into a laurel tree in order to evade the sun god Apollo.

I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate the thanks I gave in my talk at Ovid’s Garden Party and acknowledge those who have supported the project:

First of all, thank you to Winterbourne and the AHRC Cultural Engagement Fund, who funded the opening event. The project itself was made possible by generous funding from the AHRC Midlands Three Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, the University of Birmingham and Winterbourne.

Thank you to all the staff and gardeners at Winterbourne who have helped with the project – particularly curator Lee Hale, events manager Anna Fawcett and gardener Leighanne Keasey.

I also want to thank my wonderful supervisor Professor Diana Spencer, who encouraged and supported me from the project’s inception, when Ovid’s Garden was just another one of my crazy ideas!

Thank you to Joel Mills, for kindly offering to photograph the event and for the fantastic pictures you took.

Finally, I want to thank Kathryn Aalto, for her brilliant talk, Creating Gardens with Narratives, as well as the Avid for Ovid – Marie-Louise Crawley, Ségolène Tarte, Susie Crow and Malcolm Atkins – for their fantastic performances.

The primary purpose of this opening event was to showcase Ovid’s Garden as a space for public engagement. There are already plans to run interactive workshops on the uses of plants in ancient cooking, ritual, medicine and perfumery as part of the schools outreach events run by West Midlands Classics For All, and I’m also liaising with the University of Birmingham School to run workshops for their students.

So if you have an interest in using the garden space for outreach events or as a performance space, do contact me: mxb494@bham.ac.uk / @mim_bay.


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Ovid’s Garden: Summertime

Summer is here and the season’s scents are filling Ovid’s Garden: sweet-smelling roses in full bloom, aromatic herbs mingling with lavender, fragrant bay and olive, smells that never fail to remind me of Italy.photo 1The olive and bay trees have finally arrived and been placed around the perimeter of the garden in front of the copper beech hedge, which at present is covered in a vibrant display of crimson, burgundy and purple-hued leaves, dramatically contrasting the silvery olives and glossy green bays.

Native to the Mediterranean, the olive tree has been cultivated for thousands of years, predominantly for olive oil and the olive fruit, and used by the ancient Greek and Romans in all aspects of daily life, including food, medicine, cosmetics, and ritual.

The olive was sacred to Athena, and Ovid tells of its role in the godesses’ contest against the sea god Poseidon for the patronage of Athens: Poseidon creates a salt water spring from his trident, but Athena triumphs with her gift of the olive tree and the city is named after her:

‘…the earth had been struck by the goddess’ spear to produce the olive tree covered with berries and grey-green foliage’

Metamorphoses, book 6

photo x2The bay tree also had many uses in the ancient world, it’s fragrant leaves were used as a seasoning in cooking, as they are today and laurel wreaths were given as prizes at games to honour the victor.

Sacred to Apollo, Ovid recounts the story of the beautiful nymph Daphne who is pursued by the god and transformed into a laurel tree to escape from his clutches:

‘…a heavy numbness came over her body; her soft white bosom was ringed in a layer of bark, her hair was turned into foliage, her arms into branches. The feet that had run so nimbly were sunk into sluggish root; her head was confined in a treetop; and all that remained was her beauty.’

– Metamorphoses, book 1

photo 2The damask and centifolia roses are in bloom, both ancient cultivars, valued since antiquity for the strong fragrance of their abundant petals – see my April post Ovid’s Garden: Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia for more information about the cultivation and uses of these roses in antiquity.

There are still summer annuals and herbs left to plant, as well as the autumn-flowering saffron, but the garden is flourishing under the summer sun and looking more abundant than ever.photo 5


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Ovid’s Garden: Digging!

On a cold and wet day in November, a group of volunteers from the Classics & Ancient History department at the University of Birmingham and staff from Winterbourne House & Gardens braved the elements to begin work on Ovid’s Garden! We had the muddy task of lifting the turf from the site and digging the main path in front of the garden to make way for the hard landscaping elements.Blog MontageFuelled by some excellent cake and brownies, we lifted all the turf by midday and by the afternoon the site was completely cleared. Whilst digging the main path, we even unearthed some exciting finds, excavating clay pipes and pieces of pottery, identified by our resident archaeologist Meagan Mangum, which will be displayed at Winterbourne for visitors to see!ExcavatingNow the turf and the main pathway have been dug, the beds have been marked out and the remaining paths around these will need to be dug out as well. After this, edging will go around the plot and beds, then a sub base will go into the pathways before gravel is put over the top. The next step will be to prepare the beds and plant the bulbs. PlotSpecial thanks goes to the volunteers from the Classics & Ancient History department at University of Birmingham who gave up their valuable time for a day of digging in the rain with me – Meagan Mangum, Ruth Léger and Phil Myers; and also to the gardeners and volunteers from Winterbourne.
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Ovid’s Garden: Design Plans

As part of my PhD exploring the influence of Ovid in Italian Renaissance gardens I am delighted to be working in partnership with Grade II listed Arts & Crafts villa Winterbourne House & Gardens to recreate an Italian Renaissance garden based upon plantings inspired by Ovid’s botany, which has been designed by acclaimed landscape designer Kathryn Aalto.WinterbourneMy research explores how Italian Renaissance gardens were designed to impart a narrative, retelling the mythology of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Fasti through the use of landscaping, fountains, sculpture and crucially, botany. This garden will form an essential part of my research and enable me to explore the sensory experience of the garden, particularly through the practical uses of its plants in both Roman and Renaissance perfumery, medicine and cooking, as well as demonstrating the symbolism and literary allusion central to the design of Italian Renaissance gardens.

Master

Each tree, shrub, flower or herb in the garden has been chosen for its significance in Ovid’s narrative and the Italian Renaissance garden, whether it had a practical or symbolic function.

Once the garden is planted and growing I will be giving talks and running workshops at Winterbourne, exploring the properties and uses of these plants from ancient times to the modern day, offering a hands-on, interactive experience of plants including food demonstrations, concocting medicines and even making perfumes, so keep an eye on the blog for details nearer the time!

Flower BorderHerb Border copyAfter a long planning and funding application process, we’re now ready to start implementing the design at Winterbourne and digging begins next Tuesday. Follow the blog to receive regular updates on the progress of the garden and feel free to drop into Winterbourne on Tuesday to find out how we’re getting on! Watch this space for Ovid’s Garden…

Ovid's Garden


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Cherry Trees & Cherry Torte

Sour Cherry

Sour Cherry (Prunus Cerasus)

It has been a fantastic year for cherries in Britain and we are enjoying a bumper crop thanks to a cool spring followed by a gloriously sunny summer, which has meant the trees blossomed later and the fruit ripened in ideal temperatures. In Britain the majority of edible cherries come from the sour cherry (Prunus cerasus) or the wild (or sweet) cherry (Prunus avium).

Cherries were probably introduced by the Romans to Britain at the beginning of the 1st century and there is a legend that old Roman roads are marked by wild cherry trees grown from the stones Roman soldiers spat out while marching along them!

Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas)

Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas)

Ovid writes of only one type of cherry: the cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), which is not part of the Prunus family, as our sweet and sour cherries are, but a deciduous shrub that produces small yellow flowers in winter and edible glossy red or yellow cherry-like fruits, the taste of which is best described as a combination of a cranberry and a sour cherry. These cherries are pictured as part of the abundant golden age (Met. 1.102), they are among the foods Philemon and Baucis served to the gods (Met. 8.665) and are promised to Galatea by Polyphemus if she becomes his lover:

With your own fair hands you will pick the most delicious of strawberries growing under the trees,  the cornel berries in autumn.

– Metamorphoses 13.828

Whilst the cornelian cherry featured in Italian Renaissance gardens, it was cultivated for its ornamental value rather than its fruit, because of its vibrant yellow winter flowers. Instead sour and sweet cherry trees were grown for their fruit and Scappi calls specifically for visciola cherries in his cherry torte, a variety of black cherry which comes from the Prunus creasus species which in Italy has been used for centuries to make Vino di Visciole, a sweet, ruby-red dessert wine.

To prepare a visciola cherry tourte
Get visciola cherries, cook them in a little butter over a low fire, and strain the thickest part of them. Have ground marzipan paste ready, fresh egg yolks and mostaccioli, the amount of each at your discretion. When the filling is made up, have a tourte pan lined with a sheet of dough made from egg yolks, butter, sugar, rosewater, salt and fine flour, put the filling into it…

– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book VI, Recipe 128

IngredientsCherry Ingredients

500g shortcrust pastry
500g cherries
100g butter
2 egg yolks
250g marzipan
50g biscotti, crumbled

Method

  • Pre-heat the oven to 180°C and lightly grease a tart tin
  • Roll the pastry out to about 3mm thickness on a lightly floured surface, then line the tin and prick the base with a fork
  • Cover with baking paper and fill with baking beans and bake for 10 minutes
  • Remove the baking beans, crumble the biscotti mixed with the egg yolks and spread over the pastry base, bake for a further 5 minutes, then allow the pastry shell to cool
  • De-stone the cherries – this sounds much simpler than it is! If you have a fancy de-stoning gadget, you’re sorted, but I use a paperclip bent into an S shape to hook the stones out. This is tricky at first, but you soon get the knack for it and it leaves the cherries with only one hole, whereas de-stoners poke the stone out from one side through to the other and make the cherries loose their shape more than the paperclip method. Either way, the process is very messy and the juice gets everywhere, so be warned!De-Stoning
  • Sautée the cherries in a saucepan with butter for about 5 mins until juices begin to run, but the cherries still have their shapeSauteeing
  • Roll the marzipan out to about 5mm thickness and cut to size and place over the biscotti crumbsBase & Marzipan
  • Arrange the cherries over the marzipan – this is best to do when the cherries are still warm, as they melt into the marzipan slightly and don’t roll about when you’re trying to place themArranging Cherries
  • Brush the remaining juices over the cherries and serveCherry Tart

As I’ve mentioned before, I am very dubious about cooking summer fruits, much preferring them raw, so I was pleasantly surprised  that sautéing the cherries in butter did wonders to their flavour. Raw, they were already juicy and sweet without a hint of bitterness, but sautéing gave their flavour a much deeper intensity and they took on a bolder, almost fortified quality. This made me feel that perhaps Scappi missed a trick with his recipe and a boozy ingredient wouldn’t have gone amiss…proof that recipes are made to be tinkered with, even Scappi’s! Boozy or not, this is a great summer dessert, you can’t go wrong with cherries and marzipan and when make it again I intend to add a generous splash of amaretto!


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Mint & Elderflower Fritters and the Misfortunes of Menthe

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Elderflowers from the European Black Elder (Sambucus nigra)

Late spring brings elderflower. Every year my Mum makes countless bottles of elderflower cordial, but the fact she is annoyingly generous with it and always giving away bottles to people combined with my family unrestrained greed for it means that our supplies rarely last until the autumn, but it does sustain us through the long and lazy hot summer days. Whilst elderflower is making a seasonal appearance in this post, it is mint that takes centre stage…Ovid reveals the origin of mint with a reference to the story of the nymph Menthe in the lamentation of Venus before she transforms her beloved dying Adonis into an anemone:

Persephone, you were allowed to alter a woman’s body, Menthe’s, into fragrant mint: shall the transformation of my hero, of the blood of Cinyrasbe grudged to me?

– Metamorphoses 10.728

Mint

Mint (gen. Mentha)

According to Strabo, Menthe was a Cocythian nymph who was seduced by Hades, only to be discovered by his wife, Persephone who trampled her underfoot as she transformed into the pungent herb, mint. As well as being used in funerary rites, mint was an essential element of kykeon, the drink used by initiates in the Eleusian Mysteries (you can pop over to Circe’s Kitchen for the kykeon recipe). Because of its numerous gastronomic and medicinal properties as well as its use in ritual, mint was a favourite herb in the Roman garden and remained a popular garden herb in the Italian Renaissance.

For Scappi, mint wasn’t just to be used as a flavouring or accompaniment to dishes, but as a food in its own right, the case for which is proved by his fritters recipe:

To prepare fritters.
Get a pound of fine flour, two ounces of cooled melted butter, two ounces of sugar, two ounces of rosewater, a little saffron, salt, eight eggs and a beaker of goat’s milk, with all that make up a batter like well beaten glue. Let it sit in the same pot in a warm place for a quarter of an hour. Beat it again. Make fritters of it in the way described above. In that mixture you can put elderflower or mint and marjoram.

– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book V, Recipe 137

Ingredients Ingredients

100g flour
25g melted butter
25g sugar
1 egg
splash goat’s milk
drop rosewater
pinch saffron
5 elderflower heads*
5 mint stems
oil for frying

* elderflower usually blooms from the end of May to mid June (depending on the weather) – the flower heads should be collected fresh when the buds have just opened and no bitter smell can be detected

Method

  • Heat some oil in a frying pan
  • Rinse the elderflower heads and trim the stems, but leave them long enough to hold whilst frying
  • Combine the flour, melted butter, sugar, milk, rosewater and saffron and beat together until it forms a batter, then fold a beaten egg white into the mixture
  • Dip the elderflower heads one-by-one into the batter and hold by the stem in the oilFrying
  • Fry until the batter is crisp and golden, then immediately dip into caster sugar and place on a piece of kitchen rollFritters
  • Repeat with the mint leaves, leaving them on the stem and serve immediately for optimum crispiness!Final

I REALLY loved these, they were unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before and the only thing I can compare them with is the crispy fried texture of churros, but with a wonderfully aromatic hit. The cool, freshness of the mint worked so well in the warm, crunchy batter and the leaves darkened to a rich green as they fried and crystallized beautifully. I was worried the frying would cause the delicate taste of the elderflower to be lost, but if anything it preserved it and the gently floral, aromatic flavour complimented the crisp sweetness of the fried batter perfectly.

I really recommend people try these – they are so simple to make, plus they look and taste truly fantastic!


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Flavouring the Garden: Images of a Golden Age & Strawberry Crostata

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

arbutus fruit

Strawberry Tree, House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii

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.

Arbutus

Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo)

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

IngredientsStrawberry Ingredients

500g shortcrust pastry
400g strawberries
50g biscotti
2 eggs, separated
50g sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Method

  • 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!)Biscotti Base
  • 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 themPleating
  • 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.Slice