We hit the local Continental market last weekend and returned with swag – tomatoes, garlic, strawberries and melons. The strawberries were Spanish but still sweeter and plumper than those from a supermarket shelf and the melons – ah the sweet, luscious melons of Charentes, ripe and juicy and fragrant.
OK, I accept that that last sentence has more than a whiff of the “ooer Matron, fnaar fnaar” about it. But what is incontestable is that Charentais melons are as good as it gets, the rough, scaly, green veined hide concealing the lush orange hued flesh inside. And now I’m channelling Nigella – can’t you see me fondling those melons in true food porn fashion?
The point of all this is that for seven years I went to local markets awash with the ripe, intoxicating, slightly over perfumed scent of Charentais melons – the pallets marked Soldive and Rouge Gorge meant something good for breakfast, or a light soup with crispy ribbons of local ham or the heady delight of a melon half saturated with Pineau de Charentes. I’d drive past fields that, from a distance, shimmered like oases but were actually covered with metre after metre of polythene on which sat the melon plants, writhing snakes of vine supporting the jewels of fruit. I tried growing them myself once and those three (count them) melons were as wonderful as any fruit I’ve ever eaten – they have a place in my taste memory right alongside the one perfect apricot that fell from the old tree into my lap and tasted as I always thought an apricot should – sweet, juicy, still warm from the sun – and has never done since.
The melons we bought from the Continental market didn’t quite hit those heights – how could they on a still cool Spring day on the south coast? Yet still, yet still…One was ripe to the point of bursting its skin, almost alcoholic in its intensity. Perfect for making the melon ice cream that is now tucked in the freezer – the most exquisite pale orange like an Arabian sunrise and the perfume…
GLACE AU MELON DE L’ILE ST JACQUES
Scoop out the flesh of one very ripe Charentais melon and pound or blitz with 4 ounces of vanilla sugar then heat briefly until smooth and the sugar has melted. Whisk 4 large egg yolks in a bowl until thick, pour in a little of the melon puree and stir then tip the whole lot back into the saucepan and stir over a low heat until you get a thin custard – it should coat the back of your wooden spoon. Cool the mixture and the juice of 1/2 a lemon (David also adds a glass of Kirsch but it’s not my cup of tea) and fold in 300 ml softly whipped double cream.
I let this ripen in the fridge overnight and churned in my proper Magimix ice cream maker but David’s recipe simply says ‘freeze’. She also recommends serving in a hollowed out melon shell (with lid) on a ‘bed of vine or bay leaves’ which would be, let’s face it, fabulously camp.
The other thing I miss at about this time of year is that herald of Spring and early Summer, the Gariguette. Now, the Kentish strawberry – before it was overwhelmed by the all conquering uniformity of the Elsanta – was a delicious thing and I thought I’d never taste better. Until, one day in Thouars market, that first Summer, my eye fell on a stall piled high with perfectly beautiful strawberries, laid with delicate precision in their punnets, emitting the most extraordinary smell – strawberries cubed, quadrupled – the way you always imagine that strawberries should smell. And the taste – sweet, scented, sorbet like. Once you’ve gone Gariguette, you never go back.
My Spanish strawberries weren’t half bad, and in their honour I knocked up a quick cheesecake:
STRAWBERRY AND WHITE CHOCOLATE CHEESECAKE
Bash up some biscuits – I usually use shortbread, and combine with a couple of ounces of softened butter then press this into the base of your tin. Now whisk together 300 g of cream cheese and 200 ml double cream until creamy and unctuous. Meanwhile, gently melt 200 g white chocolate and then gently stir in. At this point you can add some chopped strawberries and turn it the softest blushing pink – or you can spoon them on top. Now dollop the whole rich confection on the biscuit base and chill. Serve in small slices – or not, depending on level of greed.
I wouldn’t do this with Gariguettes – they need nothing but the tip of a lover’s tongue to enjoy at their best – but I might be inclined to bathe some Elsantas in red wine and sugar and chill well before serving, maybe even topped up with les bulles