Our celeb chef Tony Tobin on strawberry fields forever

Surrey Life's resident celebrity chef Tony Tobin on why you can't beat English strawberries

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2010

Surrey Life's resident celebrity chef Tony Tobin on why you can’t beat English strawberries

FOR AS long as I can remember, I’ve always thought of the strawberry as a rather decadent fruit. Deep in the Tobin heart, brain and tastebuds, it is bound up in memories of hot summers, picnics, double cream, my mum, single cream, tennis, ice cream, caster sugar and seemingly endless PYO days.

If I dig further, I can evoke a very specific sensation. Let’s see how many of you have the same delicious mouth memory buried inside you. You take a large, plump strawberry from the top of a punnet. Then you hold the stub of the green stalk and bite down through the warm skin into the cool, sweet flesh beneath – but the way you bite is very specific because your teeth don’t quite meet. Rather, they stop at the point of contrast where the stem of stalk is buried inside the fruit. Then you pull (teeth and fingers tugging in opposite directions). This almost makes a ‘pop’ sound as the firm, juicy strawberry comes away into your mouth and the spidery green stalk and its glistening, greeny red wishbone are left between your index finger and thumb.

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit too much detail – but you know what I mean. It’s a special moment and the only thing better than this sensation is what comes next: when you actually eat it! To my mind, the perfect strawberry should combine soft and firm, sweet and very slightly tart… and it should, of course, be English.

So another rhetorical question: is it an English fruit? Do we lead the world in strawberry growing? You’d think so but, surprisingly, we’re absolutely nowhere near. In a list of the world’s top dozen strawberry growing countries, we are… last! Japan and Germany both grow twice as many strawberries as England while Spain and Russia grow three times as many as us respectively. In tonnage per year, we are strawberry paupers BUT (and it’s a bigger but than the designer of this page would allow me in terms of font size) taste-wise, there is simply no comparison.

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British is bestSupermarkets have weaned us onto an anytime culture and so the strawberries we see year-round come from Israel, Spain and Poland rather than Surrey. And maybe it’s psychological but I honestly believe that the punnets that come in from overseas are a little bit like the dreaded WAGs we read so much about in the tabloids – larger than life, superficially glamorous and beautiful but lacking in taste and terribly shallow!

A Surrey strawberry will give you a depth of taste and sweetness that an enhanced Turkish strawberry never can (prejudice alert here, I may be completely wrong… but I suspect even if I am, air-freighting and adding food miles into your punnet will remove any freshness that was there in the first place!)

So, you all know what to do with strawberries… The clues were in my opening paragraph but for my recipe (see opposite) I’m going to throw the rule book out of the window and do something extraordinary with these plump red beauties – I’m going to teach you how to serve them hot with ice cream. But first, I leave you with a few extraordinary strawberry facts...

1) It’s one of the only fruits in the world where the seeds are all on the outside. 2) Strawberries, ounce for ounce, have more Vitamin C than oranges.3) The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields was actually about a Liverpool children’s home called Strawberry Field. The song doesn’t even mention cream once. What was John Lennon thinking of?

There, now go and find a punnet of English strawberries, pick the plumpest and escape the budgetary and social woes of our country for a nanosecond. Is there anywhere else in the world you’d rather be? Thought not!

Tony Tobin is head chef at The Dining Room in Reigate (01737 226650).