The Sun-King, Louis XIV, was a gourmand and a bit of a naughty boy. By the end of his life, his royal doctor forbade him to eat anything but oatmeal, so abused was his digestive system with copious amounts of rich foods.
The strawberry was a favorite vice of his and, ignoring doctor’s orders, he consumed them steeped in red wine and sugar. Real men ate them thus in the 1700's, as cream on fruit was only for sissies and ladies. He then held a literary competition and dispatched the prize to a poet who found several ways to wax rapturously over their high color.
The strawberry of their day was a tiny, highly perfumed sweet fruit like the "fraise de bois” popular in contemporary France. Compared to the variety we are accustomed to in North America, where they can reach the size of an apple, these little berries are petite, more like the size of a dime, and are packed with a candy-like flavor.
Like the raspberry, they belong to the rose family and, like the rose, boast a strong and seductive fragrance. They are of the genus "fragaria" which refers to their perfume, while the "straw" part indicates the way the plant "strays" along the ground. Strawberries cannot be mechanically picked, and to preserve their delicate nature must be harvested by hand.
The growing season in France is from May to the end of July. In America, we now have the fruit all year around due to the temperate climate of California, one of the largest strawberry-producing States in the country. Other countries that produce large crops are Poland, Romania, Italy, Spain, Israel, Morocco, the Netherlands, and Kenya.
1 pint strawberries (1/2 pound)
1Tbsp port wine
1 quick grind black pepper
8 oz mascarpone
2 Tbsp honey (warmed so it is liquid)
1 oz dark chocolate, small chop (1/4 cup chopped)
1/2 cup espresso
2 Tbsp port wine
12 ladyfingers, broken in half
Rinse and stem the berries, slice them in quarters. Toss with honey, port and pepper. Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine mascarpone, honey and chocolate. Set aside.
Mix espresso with port in a small bowl. Have four wide champagne glasses ready, each with a one cup capacity.
Very quickly dunk each half-ladyfinger into the espresso mixture and line up in the glasses, six half-ladyfingers to a glass. Divid the mascarpone mixture among the glasses, in the center. Divide the strawberries over the top and drizzle any juice over. Eat immediately or refrigerate, covered in plastic wrap, until serving. Best eaten same day but not tragic if they sit overnight in the fridge.
Painting by Bernard Londinski, contemporary still-life painter, France.