Strawberry yields for ever


An out-of-season strawberry is like an insult: cold, unwelcome and heartless. Yet the days are lengthening. The smell of spring, earthy and fresh, wafts in on the light breeze and the sun sweeps through the window with such bright conviction in the morning that my friend Sarah and I decide we would like to go out and play. So we do, as we go across Hyde Park and into the West End, foraying into shops until lunch becomes critical and we alight at Brown's on Maddox Street.

Margaritas are imperative. "Excellent," grins the barman with obvious delight. "Cocktails before lunch." And he begins to mix.

Few things beat a margarita for daytime drinking in the spring. Unfrozen, shaken, and the rim of the glass must be salted or there's no point even bothering. If it is, the experience is exquisite. Like the sun in high summer, the alcohol dehydrates the body. Then, just as you acclimatise to the moody tequila and the sourness of the lime, the tongue strays to lick the lips to be surprised and pleased by the sharpness of the salt there. It tastes like traces of briny seawater crystallised on sunburnt skin after a cooling swim, or like sweat from the tarmac heat of the inner city. And yet it is infinitely fresher, full of giddy promise.

We are wallowing in the pleasures contained within a martini glass when my cousin arrives and demands a strawberry daiquiri to celebrate the changing season. She is told that none of the summer fruits are available yet. "But there are fresh strawberries on the market stalls in Oxford Street," she objects. And she goes haring off to buy some.

Sarah and I have just reached the bottom of our margaritas when she returns, laden with punnets of ripe, red fruits. "Wicked," says the barman, taking them from her. "Three strawberry daiquiris then?" We nod. He squeezes a lime. And blends the strawberries. Then he adds (quite a lot of) white rum. Then (and I am not sure that this is part of the recipe) he passes a glassful of the crimson syrup to each of the barstaff who raise it to their lips as though taking part in some ancient ritual and take a sip.

"The first of the year," he proclaims proudly, stirring crushed ice into the alcoholic strawberry juice, tipping it into three large glasses and proudly presenting them to the three of us perched on our barstools.

Daiquiris are wonderfully refreshing. They earned their name in the early 1900s when American engineers were developing the Daiquiri iron mines in Cuba. When they emerged from the pits, thirsty and hot and blinking in the sunlight, iced drinks made from sugar and rum and flavoured with fresh lime were pressed into their hands.

Our daiquiris have only a dash of sugar syrup - the natural sweetness of the strawberries is almost enough. And they are divine. Even better, dare I say it, than the margaritas. The hit from the fruit is like nectar: it bursts with as much flavour as the very first strawberries I remember plucking from their stems as a child, and then cramming into my mouth, hands all sticky with warm juice. In each mouthful there is an insistent taste of summer and sun and long, bright days that slip into balmy, soft evenings in pavement cafes.

This is a drink for which I would gladly spend a day in an iron mine. Just now, half a world away from Cuba, sipping the daiquiris and eating seafood pasta, ably looked after by the charming barstaff, we are half-way to paradise.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong