I love going to the source for my food. Heading out to the farm to buy produce you know has been harvested within hours of buying it, seeing the very plants that have produced it, and even being able to pick it yourself, are all ways of buying food that gives me some control over its quality. This whole "eat local" mantra that has amazingly seeped into mainstream culture, is based on this very idea. Living in a big city means I can't feasibly do this with each fruit crop, but strawberries grow well on Canada's West Coast and they are abundant down here. I feel passionate about supporting these farmers and in my own small way ensuring that I will be able to enjoy such fruits as strawberries. But let's not forgot the real reason for my trek to the farm : They taste amazing! And with a trunk full of berries I get to make these beautiful classic strawberry tarts until I almost get sick of them, although unfortunately the season is too short for any danger of that happening.
A simple strawberry tart is certainly my most anticipated seasonal dessert. Its the first real fruit experience of the growing season, and after eating apple, oranges, and frozen fruit for so long, these juicy, sun drenched red fruits are those of dreams. A simple strawberry tart is one of life's truly greatest desserts and few combinations properly celebrate this darling berry. The crust is a crisp, buttery, tart dough which is basically a butter cookie. Its crunch adding the necessary contrasting texture to the soft fruit and the vanilla flecked custard base it cradles. The stars of the party, needing not a drop of extra sugar, balance on top. You can eat a lot of these if you let yourself, I assure. And you can just as easily make these topped with raspberries and then blueberries as they come into season, although I confess they will not be quite as beautiful. By then we'll be used to summer fruits abounding the produce stands and markets, so our early summer excitement will have become jaded. Its my theory that a fruit like a strawberry has so much affection for it not only because of its amazing taste, but because we know we can't have berries like these for very long. Strawberry fields are really NOT forever.
I neglected to take a photo of the historic bridge to Westham Island. This stunning photo of the 100 year old landmark is courtesy of Jerk with a Camera.
When mid June hits, you'll find me driving out to the small agricultural community of Westham Island, about a 30 minute drive from my home in Vancouver. This island is home to many family owned berry farms, a winery, and has a notable bird sanctuary. As you head out to the island you'll see a large community of permanent houseboats on the water, which is one of the largest in Canada. The Island is connected by this charming wooden bridge that turns 100 years this year.
Upon entrance onto the island, just in case you were worried about who would protect you from, well, something, a large sign reminds you that it is protected by the local gun club. Good to know...I'll get my strawberries and be on my way, thanks!
Westham Island is flat, mostly agricultural land close to the water, and the perfect place for berry growing. Most of it looks like this with the exception of the lush and active bird sanctuary.
There are a few farms all within a short distance of eachother. I always love stopping by picture perfect and efficient, Emma Lea Farms. They are still a family run farm and boast every berry imaginable as well as potatoes and peas if you are lucky! I wasn't lucky today. Families come with their buckets and boxes and make a trip of it. There's even an ice cream stand and a small picnic area.
I'll confess, I rarely pick them myself. Mostly because I'm lazy and I'm usually alone. It would take me quite awhile to pick this many strawberries myself. Although I did enjoy it when I've done it. But for not much more money I can get a flat of berries that have been picked within a couple hours and kept in the fridge, so there is no compromise on quality, and I can save some time and work for jam making.
A stop at the charming, Westham Island Herbfarm, is a must as well. Mostly because truth be told their strawberries have something special going on if you get there early enough. Really, the stuff of strawberry dreams. They have a customer friendly property full of herbs, plants, lounging furniture, nooks and crannies filled with homemade preserves, some friendly cats and dogs, a birds nest above the produce area (what did they offer the bird to do that?), and all manner of perfect farm beets, rhubarb, potatoes and oh yes, peas!
There is also a winery which makes wines using the plentiful berries of the island. And you can fill your bags with farm fresh eggs, garden vegetables purchased at honour system farmstands.
Along the way, you are reminded of the truly, rural, farming community this is, and around every corner is the unspoiled real thing. Old farmhouses painted a welcoming blue, complete with a front porch and black and white dog.
And just look at these mail boxes all in a row, each showing its own personality.
Yup, a trip to the berry farm rewards many things, and its nice to know you don't need to go far to get away from the hustle of the city and find such beauty. Especially beauty in the form of strawberries, for that tasty tart!
This tart will be the belle of the ball. After all, who amongst us can resist strawberries, cookies and creamy custard? (well, actually I do know somebody...but that's okay, I'll eat his). Like freshly applied red lipstick, this dessert is a show stopper. All elements can be made ahead and ideally the tart should be assembled as close to serving time as possible. Leftovers will keep for a day, but I wouldn't count on there being any.
The tart shells can be baked the day before and covered, or pressed into pan(s) and then kept in the freezer for up to a month. No need to de-thaw when baking.
recipe can be found here.
For individual tarts, press the dough into about 1 dozen individual tart shells with removable bottom, being sure to reserve a large walnut size nub of dough, in case of patch work. Follow the recipe, but fully bake the crust until a nice golden brown. Cool completely before filling tart(s).
1 cup milk, plus 1/3 cup , 2% or wholemilk
1 cup cream
1 large vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped of seeds, OR 2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup sugar
8 egg yolks (or 4 oz)
7 Tbsp cornstarch
3 Tbsp butter
Combine 1 cup of milk, cream and vanilla bean. Heat to a boil, then cover and put aside for 15 minutes to infuse with vanilla. If using extract instead, omit the wait.
Have an ice bath ready before you start. Simply fill a large bowl with ice cubes and water and set aside. Have another medium bowl with a strainer set over top ready and place that in the larger bowl.
Combine sugar and egg yolks and beat until combined and sugar has started to dissolve.
Whisk together cornstarch and the 1/3 cup milk.
In a slow stream, whisking constantly, pour the hot milk mixture (bean and all) into the egg yolks, increasing the speed as you go. The goal here is to make sure the eggs don't scramble. Once the eggs are tempered, this is less likely to happen. Once added, add in the cornstarch mixture, whisking well.
Put over medium heat and, stirring constantly, cook, until it thickens to the texture of mayonnaise.
Pour into into strainer, pushing it through, being careful you don't get any water in the custard. Stir in the vanilla extract, if using. Stir in butter, and then let the mixture cool completely, stirring frequently, Refrigerate.
Chocolate Ganache (completely optional)
4 oz bittersweet or semi sweet chocolate, chopped fine
1/2 cup cream
Place chopped chocolate in a heatproof glass or metal bowl and put aside. Bring cream to a boil in microwave (my preferred method). Pour over chocolate. Leave a couple of minutes and then slowly whisk the mixture together, gently. Set aside, or refrigerate for later use. Melt it down for chocolate sauce for ice cream or strawberries .
Strawberries, the freshest you can get
Red Currant, crab apple, or other red jelly, for glazing
Warm up chocolate ganache if its solidified, until melted. A gently, short burst in the microwave will do this. With a soup spoon, spoon the warm chocolate onto the cooled tart shell, using the back of the spoon to spread a layer about 1/8inch thick. The chocolate is a minor player here, so resist the temptation to overdo this, as it will detract from the delicacy of the tart.Just enough to cover the surface of the tart shell is what you are aiming for. It also acts as a moisture barrier if the tart is to be held for any amount of time. Place in the freezer to cool and harden.
Spread on the pastry cream, being sure not to fill the tart shell to the rim, keeping in mind that the weight of the strawberries will displace some of the cream.
Now, slice the berries in to whatever shape you prefer and gently place them on the pastry cream, starting from the outside and working you way in. You can use smaller berries, or cut some in smaller pieces to fill in gaps. Keeping the cut sides up or on their sides will minimize moisture from the juice. Once done, melt jelly, if using, and gently brush it onto the berries. This will help them stay in place, and give it a professional glossy look.
Refrigerate until serving.