Our Saturday market is busier than ever. As we walk to the square where it is held, we come across people with bulging bags of produce, bouquets wrapped in kraft paper, delicate little zucchini and tomato plants ready to be put into the nourishing soil of their gardens. The weather isn't perfect, but spring is in the air.
When we reach the market, most of the flowers have already been sold, but everything else is still in abundance. Lettuce, spinach, rhubarb, sausage, cheese, waffles ... even bunnies and baby geese. People, too. Trying to escape the frenzy of the crowd, we sneak around the back of the stalls. There's no one there, a clear passage. Only crates and crates of strawberries, stacked 10 high, in the back of practically every stall. Towers of bright red.
It's hard to imagine how many berries are amassed in the back of these stalls. Even harder to imagine how many there must've been in the first place, before the crowds started to roll in in the early morning. It makes me wonder how many are spread across all the homes and farmers' markets of this country. Who grew them? Who picked them? Who washed and checked them? Who divided them up into neat little piles of exactly 500 gr? It seems surreal.
All the while, at the other side of the stalls, vendors are yelling their hearts out, assuring the lingering crowd that their berries are the best, the prettiest, the juiciest, the most local, the cheapest.
We reach our favorite stall. There is no yelling or hassling here; just kind and honest conversation. I hear one of the owners ask his customer how she liked the turnip-tops she bought last time, the other recognizes her dance teacher from years ago. Watching them sell the produce they grew themselves, hearing them talk about it with pride and humility at the same time, makes me smile. I don't really know these people, but I feel a deep warmth and respect for them. They are still so young, but passionate about what they do and stubborn enough to do it their way. Their stall is small compared to the giant constructions that flank it, there aren't massive piles of everything and their strawberries are more expensive than those at other stalls, but I know exactly where they came from. Pretty soon, I'll meet the person who picked them, washed them and divided them. That's worth something.
• I was a little unsure about what to call this dessert, as it is neither a classic merveilleux - which is rolled in chocolate and topped with a single cherry at most - nor a proper dacquoise - which is made with almonds or hazelnuts rather than pistachios. I chose to stick with the former. For those of you familiar with a merveilleux, though, keep in mind that this is a slightly more rustic and far less sweet version of the original. The roasted strawberries add some punch to the sweetness of cream and meringue, while the pistachios offer a little extra crunch. Also, this recipe doesn't use quite as much whipped cream as most traditional merveilleux recipes do. Personally, I think it's unnecessary - and a shame - to drown the whole thing in sweetened whipped cream. If you particularly like whipped cream and want to add more, though, just double the recipe for the cream.
• Depending on how thick you make your meringues, you might have some leftover. That's okay. Meringues will keep in an airtight container in a dry place for 1 to 2 weeks.
• The strawberries can easily be prepared a day in advance, as can the meringues. Store the strawberries (in the syrup) in the refrigerator and the meringues in an airtight container in a dry place until you are ready to serve.
Roasted Strawberry & Pistachio Merveilleux
inspired by The Vanilla Bean Blog
makes 4 to 6 medium merveilleux
for the roasted strawberries
500 gr strawberries, hulled
1 tbsp honey
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
black pepper, coarsely ground
for the meringue
4 egg whites
200 gr super fine sugar
juice of 1/2 lemon
120 gr pistachios, finely chopped
for the whipped cream
250 ml heavy cream
20 gr granulated sugar
for the roasted strawberries
1. Preheat oven to 190°C. Halve or quarter large strawberries, but keep the pieces relatively large. Small strawberries can be kept whole.
2. In a baking dish large enough to hold all the strawberries in a single layer, combine strawberries, honey and vinegar. Add a few cracks of coarsely ground black pepper to spice it up.
3. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the strawberries are soft but not falling apart and the juices and vinegar have gathered into a clear syrup. Allow to cool completely.
for the meringue
1. Lower oven temperature to 100°C. Line 2 to 3 baking sheets with parchment paper. Trace 8 cm circles on the back of each piece of parchment paper to use as a guide when piping the meringue.
2. In an electric stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, or with a handheld mixer, and using a clean, grease-free bowl, beat the egg whites. Start on low speed, then, when the egg white starts to become foamy, gradually up the speed. When the egg white forms soft peaks, start adding the sugar, little by little. Once all the sugar is incorporated, gradually add the lemon juice. When everything is incorporated, beat on maximum speed for a few extra seconds. The egg white should now be glossy and form stiff peaks.
3. Using a rubber spatula, carefully fold in the chopped pistachios.
4. Fit a piping bag with a medium-sized, circular nozzle and fill it with the meringue. Make sure the nozzle is large enough the pass the chopped nuts. On the prepared parchment paper, pipe the meringue into 8 cm circles, with a thickness of 1-2 cm. If you want a thicker meringue, pipe an extra layer on top of each circle. (Alternatively, you could spoon large dollops of the meringue onto the parchment paper and use the back of a spoon to spread them out to the desired size.)
5. Bake meringue for 1,5 to 2 hours, until completely dry. If possible, prop open the oven door a couple of centimeters during the baking process. This will help the excess moisture to leave the oven. Remove meringues from the oven and immediately remove them from the baking sheet. Sliding the parchment paper onto a cold work surface will help the meringues to release from the paper. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool for a few minutes while you prepare the whipped cream.
1. In an electric stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, or with a handheld mixer, beat the heavy cream and sugar until thick and pillowy.
2. Right before you plan to serve them, assemble the merveilleux. Dollop a spoonful of the whipped cream onto a meringue disc, then add a few of the roasted strawberries. Top with another meringue disc, an extra dollop of whipped cream and more strawberries. Finish with a generous drizzle of the strawberry-balsamic syrup. Repeat for the rest of the merveilleux.