This is about taking things to the limit.
It’s something I’m familiar with. I’m not just talking about The Eagles’ song, which is perhaps, the world’s best tune to belt out while driving through country roads on your own.
It’s about getting to the edge and realising with a pricklish snap that you probably need to pull back a bit.
A confession. I have been running on sheer adrenaline for the past four weeks. A gut-churning, mildly frenzied, borderline mania which is my persistent downfall. If I was a character being analysed in a Robert McKee ‘Story‘ workshop, this would be my inherent flaw. It’s both what has worked well for me so often in my life and what kicks me hardest in the dark. But first, it lets me get things done. Make a list. A long one. Then tick things off. If you can tick off four all at the same time; like baby being fed, recipe in the oven being tested, contracts being signed while you’re on the phone sorting out your health insurance, then you’re winning. There’s then time to go out, see hoards of people, try and get your body back to something you once remembered as yours, come home, get all the washing done, settle the baby, do some more Life Administration, cook dinner, clean up. Then sleep for three-four hours and do it all again.
Do it, until you start reaching your physical limit and things start getting a little skewed. You see, this is a process that works, until it really, really doesn’t. It’s then that things start to go pear shaped.
I’m in the middle of testing recipes at the moment for a new project. And it was when I got to this; that I recognised the glint of an approaching limit.
Actually I lie. I didn’t see the edge. My sister did; with one comment on an Instagram; ‘A bridge too far…?’. And she’s probably right. The dish was a strawberry, black pepper, balsamic gazpacho, thickened with white beans and thrumming with tomato and cucumber. It worked. Sort of. It was a hot day and this was a very cooling soup. There was the freshness of cucumber and some substance from the blitzed beans. The sweetness of the tomatoes were amplified by the strawberries. The olives and basil added salt and lift and pepper added grunt.
But it was also the product of a mind that was racing and stretching too far, too fast- trying for too much. To an outsider, there was no way that this could be a combination to pull them in.
So since then we’ve said; Stop.
I’ve retreated from the craggy chaos of Sydney to the green paddocks of Berry, on the NSW south coast. I’ve checked into the ‘Grand Hotel Nana’. This is a sprawling country house, decorated in Hamptons style. Out the back there’s a orchard of citrus trees.
There’s a glorious vegetable patch. In the bottom paddock are three horses; a bronzed chestnut, a smokey grey and a small cartoon character of a creature; Pancake- the shetland pony who thinks that he’s king of the castle.
It’s a pretty magical place. In this hotel someone does your washing for you. They bring you tea in bed, and on the couch while you’re feeding a wee one. And in the best interpretation of room service I’ve ever seen, they will let you sleep the first part of the night in pearlish silence, un interrupted by the truck-driver-snoring of your month old son before bringing you your infant in the middle of the night, only when he’s truly ravenous.
I wish I could tell you the check in details- but it seems there’s a set price- and it’s relative.
After three days of being pampered by my Mum, I’m a whole new person.
And so I’ve turned my spooling thoughts back to that soup. The kicking off point was the cracking (and rather classic) combination of ripe strawberries with balsamic vinegar. The mild funk of the black syrup brings a complexity to the baby sweetness of the berries. To kick things along further, I wanted to add a good quantity of black pepper. The problem was my initial inclination to take the combination towards a savoury dish. When really – there’s nothing wrong with pepper in desserts- it’s actually something that I think is markedly underused. I first stumbled upon it in Iceland, in the cookies we scoffed by the fistful- it then wound its way into the Blueberry Skyrr Icelandic trifle in ‘Suitcase and a Spatula’.
Strawberries, pepper and balsamic; these are all linked. In a mental flavour thesaurus, they’re related and equally kind to each other.
So instead of a chilled soup, I’ve turned to cocoa as the final chink in this chain. Either a thick ganache style cream, made from equal quantities of thick cream whipped with dark chocolate, or a scoop of a very dense chocolate ice cream (such as Green and Blacks) would work.
It’s elegant simplicity, with a slightly kinky twist. I would probably serve it for dessert after an Italian style feast, perhaps of porchetta with roasted fennel.
This is a pudding that lets you stop, breathe easy and be appreciative. Of the spare time you now have from making something restrained. Of what happens when related things pitch in to help each other out. And of the natural sweetness of berry (both the fruit, and the town).
I can now say (calmly); things are good.
Black Pepper, Balsamic Strawberries with Chocolate Cream
Strawberries with balsamic and black pepper
300 grams of ripe strawberries, hulled and cut into quarters2 tbsp balsamic vinegar (nb, you want good quality balsamic- if yours is quite acidic, mellow it with a tsp or so of brown sugar)
Freshly ground pepper to taste (I recommend about 1 tsp)
Either use 1 scoop per person of good quality chocolate ice cream, or melt 100 grams of dark chocolate and whip it with 100 ml of double cream until thick and glossy.
Here’s how we roll
1) Allow the strawberries to come to room temperature and make sure they are dry.
2) Grind black pepper over the top.
3) Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and toss to combine. Taste. There should be a good mix of sweetness from the strawberries, kick from the pepper and funk from the vinegar. If the balance is off add a little brown sugar, or extra pepper.
4) Serve the strawberries at room temperature with the chocolate cream or ice cream over the top.