As a child who hated sport, born into a family of sport lovers, having my birthday in the opening days of July was pure torture. If my birthday was at the weekend, it fell on the same day as either the women’s or men’s tennis final at Wimbledon. While other children would have spent the afternoon being sung ‘Happy Birthday’ and eating cake, I was constantly told to be quiet or asked to go and play with my toys in the other room. And every four years, there would be a couple of World Cup football matches thrown in like the bonus ball.
Ironically, it was a tradition associated with Wimbledon that was the one shining light for me: the tradition of strawberries and cream. Late June, early July is the season for English strawberries, plucked fresh from the Kentish garden of England and, in my opinion, the sweetest, most fragrant strawberries on the planet. These would be served on my birthday weekend, either with an oozing blanket of double cream, or more deliciously, with an oblong of Wall’s dairy ice-cream—vanilla flavor—which looked like a golden stick of butter melting into a frosty crème anglaise.
My love of strawberries has remained with me all my life, and even though they are available earlier in the countries where I have lived as an adult, I often wait for my birthday to eat the first strawberries of the year. So when I moved to Paris, and started to frequent the pâtisseries, the first cake to catch my eye was the fraisier or French strawberry gateau.
Rather resembling a drum, the fraisier shouts ‘look at these lovely strawberries’ which are displayed, cut in half, all around the outside, standing to attention like the guards at Buckingham Palace (or should that be Versailles?) Held together with a white crème mousseline—crème patissière with added butter—the whole is usually topped with green marzipan and decorated with strawberries.
Cutting into the gateau you discover two thin layers of genoise cake and a centre literally packed with more strawberries. In fact, a good fraisier is really a vehicle for strawberries, the other elements being just enough to hold it into a cake shape. There is a debate as to whether you should be able to see the genoise layers or not from the outside, with the consensus being that if the genoise is hidden it looks more professional; however I have seen genoise clearly on display in some of the top pâtisseries in Paris.
I always imagined that a fraisier would taste like cake with strawberries and so was pleasantly surprised to discover it actually tastes like strawberries with a little cake, in fact, like strawberries and cream. Notwithstanding the large amount of butter, the crème mousseline tastes like fresh clotted cream, a trick performed by adding the butter in waves rather than all at once.
Late April is when the first French strawberries of the season arrive in the markets of Paris. The variety, known as la gariguette, is produced in the south, mostly in the region of Aquitaine. So as this is the current fruit of season, I decided not to wait until my birthday, but to attempt a fraisier now.
For my first fraisier, I followed the traditional recipe which can be accessed here (in French). This was the recipe used as one of the technical challenges in the last series of Le meilleur pâtissier (the Great French Bake Off). It was surprisingly easy to replicate and I was delighted with the result. I did find the addition of the marzipan a little sweet and so next time will experiment with some more original toppings. I have two months to get it right as I will definitely be enjoying a fraisier on my birthday, which happily falls midweek this year—no tennis finals—and on a rest day for the football World Cup. It seems for once that I will be the only winner that day.