The traditional everyday desserts at my grandparent’s home were two. In winter, it was pears, or apples, with some dried prunes, cooked with a little wine, sugar and spices; in summer, it was fresh fruit marinated in wine: strawberries in spring, peaches in summer, various berries when we picked them up in the mountains. My father still retains a passion for these desserts. My mother hates them. I have a kind of mixed feeling for them.
I did not like them much when I was a kid: of course! They contain wine! However you have to understand that there was no taboo about young people drinking a little alcohol, also because the chances for alcohol misuse were much smaller than today. Teenage drinking was not a problem. You never saw drunk teenagers in the streets. It was a completely different world. Alcohol was just a component of wine, and wine was pretty much part of every day’s diet. Nobody thought you were an alcoholic if you had a glass of wine with your lunch. In many parts of Italy, it is still so, and apart from the big towns, there is no tradition of getting out at the weekend just in order to get drunk. I find this cultural habit very sad and very poor.
The reason why these fruit based dessert were not very appealing to me is that I used to eat fruit as a snack, not as a dessert, and I always rated them as second class desserts, not proper ones. Today however I appreciate them more. I am still a bit skeptic about poached fruit, and I still prefer my strawberries with cream or lemon, instead of wine.
However there is a variation over these kind of dessert that I have always loved. It came to my mind the other day: it is a recipe my mother made quite often. It is quick, it looks elegant, it must be made ahead, and it is ideal to conclude a heavy meal, as it is quite light. Strawberries are marinated in wine with a few spices; although the spices are the typical ones for winter, they work also in this summer treat. The wine is then boiled so that the alcohol evaporates completely, and gelatine is added before pouring the liquid over the strawberries and chilling it overnight. The result is a very refreshing summer jelly, served in glass cups.
I asked my mother for the recipe and then decided to go for agar agar instead of gelatine. I always found gelatine a bit queasy. I like the consistency you can obtain with agar agar better, it is more creamy. If you can’t find it, or find it too expensive, and you are not a vegetarian, use gelatine leaves. It will still be perfectly fine.
One thing: using gelatine or agar agar is easy, but you have to know how to use them. Always read and apply the packet instructions! Disaster is looming if you don’t. If you read Italian and want to become more familiar with the way agar agar works, I advice you to read this very interesting post. In a nutshell, the basic rules are: for gelatine, always make sure you pre-soak it, dissolve it completely and mix it well; for agar agar, always use very little of it, and always make sure you cook it. Needless to say, I learned these basic rules the hard way.
As far as the type of wine to use here, choose quite a light bodied one, and make sure it is not aged in casks. The wooden flavour will not work here. I prefer to use dry wine, as I don’t really like sweet ones, but this is definitely a matter of personal choice. Don’t go for a very expensive wine, but do make sure you choose one you’d like to drink as it is, as even though the evaporated alcohol and the spices will change the flavour, the starting wine will still have an impact. For instance I choose a local wine called Dornfelder, the dry (‘trocken’) variety. It does not have much body but it has some fruity notes, and it is slightly bitter, which in the resulting dessert was actually quite nice.
Strawberries and Wine Jelly
Ingredients (makes four glasses)
300 gr strawberries, cut in pieces (not too small ones)
400 ml red, light bodied wine
90 gr sugar (adapt to taste and ripeness of the fruit)
1 lemon zest, whole
1 cinnamon stick
small handful of mint leaves
1 gr (scan teaspoon) agar agar powder, or 15 grams gelatine leaves
Mix all the ingredients but the agar agar or gelatine. Leave to marinate for at least an hour at room temperature, or overnight in the fridge.
Filter out spices and strawberries; put the spices and lemon back in the wine. Dissolve the agar agar in the cold liquid. Bring it to the boil. When it is boiling ignite it using a matchstick or a small torch: the alcohol will quickly burn out.if you are scared of flaming things up, you can probably avoid this step as the boiling already makes most of the alcohol evaporate. Make it boil for 5 minutes for a soft result, increase to up to ten minutes if you want a stiffer consistency.
Arrange the strawberries in four glasses or cups, and pour the liquid over them. Let it cool down and then put in the fridge at least 3-4 hours to become solid. If you used agar agar and find the result is too soft, fish out the strawberries and make it boil again. You will get a thicker consistency.