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A Wimbledon dream of strawberries and cream

Over 4,000 kilometres away, the classic dessert of the grass courts continues to inspire pastry chefs in India

Chef Kelvin Cheung’s strawberry cheesecake at Bastian.
Chef Kelvin Cheung’s strawberry cheesecake at Bastian.

I remember a day in college when having squandered away the last of my fairly generous monthly allowance, I was left with just enough for a meal at the college café. Spring was beginning to unfurl the young green leaves in Delhi and the fruit carts in every neighbourhood were piled high with fresh strawberries, tempting all those who passed by. I threw caution to the wind and splurged my meal money on a few dozen fat and sweet Himachali strawberries. Then I made my way to the local dairy and bought pints of fresh double cream. I had never eaten strawberries with cream before and I realized my instinctive pairing was something I had subconsciously imbibed from watching Wimbledon on TV, year after year, as I was growing up. And after all this time, I still remember the sheer joy of discovering the perfect dessert.

Strawberries in history

British author and journalist David Boyle has an entire chapter dedicated to strawberries and cream in his 2015 book, How To Be English. “The development of tennis and especially Wimbledon seems to have gone hand in hand with the development of the peculiarly English delicacy of strawberries and cream. It tastes not just of a green, pollen-filled English summer but of deuce and the thwack of ball on racket," he writes. He also goes on to trace the history of this delicacy back to the time of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, for whom the first tennis court was built at Hampton Court Palace, the Tudor venue for “real tennis", from which modern-day tennis originated. It was Wolsey who came up with the original pairing at a banquet in the beginning of the 16th century.

Rumours of the dish’s aphrodisiacal properties and associations with wedding feasts and Venus, the goddess of love, abounded even earlier. Local folklore described the double strawberry as that most powerful of love potions—break one in half and share it with one you love and they would be yours forever. However, its associations with tennis are more recent.

Served ever since the first 1877 Wimbledon Championship, strawberries and cream continue to hold each generation of spectators in thrall. Only the finest Kentish strawberries are Wimbledon-worthy, and even those are assessed at the ground before being served. A punnet (basket) contains about 8-10 strawberries and it comes with an optional serving of cream and sugar. During the Wimbledon season, restaurants across London also serve variations of the Eton mess, which amps up the classic dish with meringue, sponge cake and fruit liqueur.

Wimbledon strawberries.

Season’s bounty

In India, however, Wimbledon arrives just after the last of the strawberries have vanished from markets. Thanks to the efforts of far-sighted chefs and assiduous home cooks, however, its glorious essence can be had in squashes, jams and syrups, preserving the memory of the fruit in the months when it is not available.

Chef Kelvin Cheung makes an entire batch of jams and marmalades with different varietals of strawberries. He pickles the green ones and lets them sit for a year and uses them in both sweet and savoury dishes. “Some of the strawberries we use are tart, while others are sweet, and sometimes we put them all on the same plate to add different flavours,"says Cheung. During the season, strawberries are served across his restaurants. So he does a strawberry cheesecake for dinner at his seafood speciality restaurant Bastian in Bandra, Mumbai, and a strawberry chia bowl for the restaurant’s Sunday brunch. At the nearby One Street Over, an Asian gastropub, Cheung whips up his take on strawberries and cream with an assortment of strawberries, a vanilla sponge, a black pepper meringue and his home-made, steam-cooked strawberry syrup.

This seasonal fruit (available from November-April) comes in boxes padded with leaves to protect the delicate berries inside. Much like their Kentish counterparts, they travel from the hill towns and farms of Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Haryana to fruit carts and dessert menus across the country. At Le 15 Pâtisserie, Pooja Dhingra whips up a toothsome strawberry and cream cake, layering vanilla genoise with pastry cream and fresh strawberries.

A classic pairing

There is something about this classic combination that has takers in every part of the world. And that is the reason chefs across the country play with the classic ingredients—strawberries, meringue and whipped cream—to come up with versions that pay homage to the original.

At Bengaluru’s Asian gastrobar, The Fatty Bao, chef Prashanth Puttaswamy’s Sakura Winter was a hat tip to the Eton mess and a special offering for the restaurant’s second anniversary celebrations last year. It comprised a lemongrass and poppy-seed meringue shell encasing a vanilla yogurt panna cotta with cherry compote. It was a playful dessert and the initial snowy look erupted in colour when the meringue shell was cracked. “Our dish was inspired by the cherry blossom season in Japan, but in form, texture and brightness it was derived from the Eton mess," says the chef.

Mumbai-based patisserie La Folie’s version of strawberries and cream is a sophisticated confection in pink. A champagne sorbet encased in a meringue shell is offset by strawberries poached in champagne vinegar, a pistachio cake and Chantilly cream. “We take a classic English dessert and plate it artistically, adding several textural elements as well as mature flavours which come from the champagne vinegar. The latter is much sweeter than white wine vinegar and goes really well with strawberries," says chef Sanjana Patel, who serves this dessert in her cafés when strawberries are in season.

Not to be left behind, chefs in star hotels also have their versions of the classic. At The Oberoi Patisserie & Delicatessen, Gurugram, Gagan Rahi, senior sous chef, pastry, adds mascarpone cheese, a delicate strawberry and cream foam and freeze-dried strawberries to add varied textural elements to his interpretation. He finishes it off by adding pea shoots and other aromatic microgreens. At the Pune Sugar Box, the delicatessen at Conrad Pune, executive pastry chef Saurabh Shahi makes a classic strawberry pavlova, in which the meringue itself is made with strawberry pastry cream.

And while many of these fresh strawberry delights might be out of bounds for Wimbledon followers in India, there is a solution at hand. Get a tin of strawberry pie filling, chunky strawberry jam or frozen strawberries from your local supermarket, pair with fresh meringues and clotted cream, and settle down to watch the games in style.

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