The ripest strawberries and the lightest of fillings produce a tarte aux fraises that tastes as good as it looks, says Rosa Jackson
As soon as the first strawberries appear in the markets, pâtissiers begin whipping up crème pâtissière for tartes aux fraises. Made of sweet shortcrust pastry, vanilla cream and scarlet berries artfully arranged on top, this tart may be one of the most eye-catching pastries in the French repertoire.
The sad truth, however, is that a tarte aux fraises doesn’t always live up to its good looks: to create a tart that is easy to transport, pastry chefs often give in to the urge to make the pastry a little too thick and the crème pâtissière a little too stiff. Instead of choosing the ripest French strawberries, which are inevitably fragile, they sometimes use imported varieties with the resistance of ping-pong balls (and with about as much flavour). Even the glaze is often applied with a heavy hand to keep the tart looking glossy and fresh for as long as possible.
As a result of too many disappointing tartes aux fraises, I gave up on the traditional recipe altogether, preferring to make a purist version with fresh strawberries, barely set home-made strawberry jelly and no pastry cream. This kept me happy for years until one day I had lunch at the Bruno Cirino’s Café de la Fontaine in the medieval village of La Turbie overlooking the Principality of Monaco. Here I tasted the strawberry tart of my dreams: buttery pastry, pillowy cream flecked with fresh vanilla seeds, and just-picked strawberries with no jelly at all. Neither too sweet nor too rich, this tart convinced me that crème pâtissière has its place under berries after all.
The secret of a great tarte aux fraises, I now understand, is to accept its fragility. This is not the dessert to take to a friend’s dinner party or on a picnic; it demands to be eaten on a plate with a fork, not long after it has been assembled. An hour or two in the refrigerator helps the crème pâtissière set nicely, but leave it too long and the chill will take the sweetness out of the berries. What you are aiming for is a just-picked quality, with the pastry and cream gently propping up the star ingredient.
The pastry should be sturdy enough to hold the filling, but delicate enough to break easily under the fork. I use a classic pâte sucrée (sweet shortcrust) recipe with a small twist: crème fraîche replaces the water, making the pastry especially tender. Cirino prefers to use eggs as the only liquid in his pastry, with a high proportion of butter.
Inspired by Cirino’s tart, I make my crème pâtissière as light as possible by using milk rather than cream and leaving out the butter that is sometimes added at the end to enrich the custard. His secret to a light texture is to fold whipped cream into the crème pâtissière. Whether you use cream or milk, the essential ingredient is a fresh, supple vanilla bean: mine comes from Madagascar and half is enough to perfume the tart. I reduce the flour to a bare minimum so that the crème pâtissière holds its shape without becoming gluey.
Finally, the strawberries. In April, early-season French varieties make their first appearance: the slim, orangey Gariguette with a touch of acidity, and sweet, heart-shaped Ciflorette. From June, look for the Mara des Bois, a small, deep-red berry with the slightly floral taste of a wild strawberry, and the Charlotte, which is more resilient when the weather gets hot. Strawberries should be washed with their stems on to prevent them soaking up water and then gently wiped dry. So delicate are the berries sold in French markets that it is best to use them as quickly as possible, or be prepared to turn them into jam.
Gariguette Strawberry Tart from the Café de la Fontaine
Not content to have earned two Michelin stars at Hostellerie Jérôme, his hotel-restaurant set in a medieval presbytery in La Turbie, Bruno Cirino also runs this lively bistro with a terrace spilling into the village’s main square. Food-lovers come from far and wide to taste his simple, market-inspired dishes such as fresh ravioli with green peas, steak with béarnaise and tarts filled with lemon, chocolate or strawberries depending on the season. Dishes are prepared in Hostellerie Jérôme’s kitchen, and lunch or dinner is a bargain at €28 for three courses.
For the pastry:
60g icing sugar
20g ground almonds
Small pinch of fine salt
125g softened butter
For the filling:
1.5kg small, sweet strawberries
225g white sugar
1 vanilla bean
6 egg yolks
250ml double cream
50g slivered, toasted and sugared almonds
1. In a bowl, combine the flour, icing sugar, ground almonds, salt, softened butter and eggs with a pastry scraper* or your hands until it comes together. Turn on to a board and work with the heel of your hand for a minute or two, pushing the dough away from you bit by bit, until it is evenly combined. Put in plastic wrap and set aside in the refrigerator for at least an hour.
2. Preheat the oven to 160°C. Roll out the pastry to a thickness of about ½cm. Transfer it to a 28cm tart tin, letting the excess dough fall over the sides. Place on a baking sheet.
3. Bake the pastry until it is fully cooked and deep golden. Let it cool, then cut off the excess pastry from the edges using a sharp, thin-bladed knife.
4. Remove the stems from the strawberries and cut them in half lengthwise. Sprinkle with 100g of the sugar.
5. For the crème pâtissière, bring the milk to a boil in a saucepan with the vanilla bean, which has been cut in half lengthwise and scraped of its seeds (which also go into the milk).
6. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks and remaining sugar in a mixer at high speed for three minutes. Mix in the flour and add the hot milk bit by bit, beating at low speed. Transfer to a saucepan and cook over a low heat until thickened, whisking constantly.
7. Put the crème pâtissière in the refrigerator to cool, placing a piece of plastic wrap on its surface to prevent a skin from forming.
8. Beat the double cream in a mixer until stiff and fold it into the crème pâtissière using a wooden spoon.
9. Fill the pastry three-quarters full with the crème pâtissière. Arrange the strawberries on top in rows facing sideways. Decorate with the toasted almonds.
* A pastry scraper is a plastic tool with one rounded edge and one flat edge, perfect for mixing doughs, scraping out bowls or cleaning the counter.
Café de la Fontaine
4 Avenue du Général de Gaulle
06320 La Turbie
Tel: (Fr) 4 93 28 52 79