Sweet pickings: Skye Gyngell's berry desserts

The great British berry harvest is in full swing – and with little effort, says Skye Gyngell, the fruits of our forests become the taste of the summer

Soft summer English berries are the best in the world. Gentle in flavour and intoxicatingly fragrant when plumply ripe – nothing else tastes quite like them.

Imported varieties are generally watery and tasteless – picked when not properly ripe, they always disappoint me, so I prefer to avoid them at all costs and wait until late June and early July for the first of the English varieties to arrive.

The difference is huge, and British berries really are worth waiting for – here are some ideas to help you get the most out of them.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627

Summer pudding

This quintessential English dessert is easy to make and benefits from a little time in the fridge to allow it to firm up and make it easier to take from the mould. It should not, to my mind, be too sweet, but rather slightly sharp just at the end; that way it is more palette-cleansing and less cloying than other desserts. The proportions of the fruits used don't really matter: what is important is the selection. You need a mix of tart and sweet – so red or blackcurrants are a must, as are raspberries and blackberries. I like to add strawberries too.

Serves 6-8

8-10 slices of good-quality bread such as pain de mie (a soft traditional white bread enriched with butter and sugar). Don't use a shop-bought sliced white bread; it tastes no better than sodden cotton wool
1kg/2lb berries, any selection will do
220g/71/2oz caster sugar

To serve

Pouring cream

Remove the crusts from the bread and cut it into 1/4-inch thick slices, then into 2-inch fingers. Line the base and sides of an eight-inch pudding bowl. Hull and quarter the strawberries – if using – and pick over the other berries, then place into a bowl. Add the sugar and toss lightly to combine. Now put the berries into a heavy-based non-reactive saucepan and place over a medium heat. Warm the berries until they soften and become juicy and the sugar has dissolved. Spoon the berries into the lined pudding basin while they are still warm and place a final, whole piece of bread on top to create, in effect, a lid, patching here and there with smaller pieces to ensure that there are no spaces. Allow to cool to room temperature. Place a plate on top to help weigh down the fruit and place in the fridge for two hours to allow the pectin to set and the pudding to firm. To serve, invert the pudding on to a plate. It should unmould very easily. Serve as it is – this blood-red dome looks most beguiling brought to the table – and pass around a jug of pouring cream.

Strawberry sorbet

Perfectly ripe, fragrant English strawberries make the best summer sorbet of all. It tastes completely and intensely of strawberries and we have made it a lot this summer at the nursery – probably because at this time of year it is what I would like to finish a meal with.

Serves 8

375g/12oz strawberries
1 whole unwaxed lemon, chopped into small pieces, seeds removed
A small pinch of sea salt
150g/5oz caster sugar

Hull the strawberries and place in the blender along with the pieces of lemon, a pinch of salt and the sugar. Now simply purée the whole lot until smooth. Pour into an ice-cream maker and freeze following the manufacturer's instructions (or, if you don't have one, place in a plastic container and put in the freezer, removing every 20 minutes to stir until frozen). This, like most sorbets and ice-creams, is best eaten on the day it is made, but it can be made a couple of days in advance. '

Blackcurrant jelly

I love home-made jelly. My mother used to make a simple orange jelly, laced with cut-up strawberries: cool and soft, it would slip down our throats on hot summer evenings. This jelly is quite grown-up in taste. We flavour it with a little lemon verbena from the garden – but if you find this difficult to find, you can leave it out. The flavour will still be lip-smackingly tart, yet quite sweet at the same time.

Serves 6

180g/6oz sugar
500ml/17fl oz water
A few sprigs of lemon verbena
31/2 sheets of leaf gelatine
4 punnets of blackcurrants

To serve (optional)

Pouring cream
A few handfuls of blackberries and raspberries

Pick over the blackcurrants well, removing any little stems and bases, and rinse well under cold water. Place the blackcurrants, sugar and water into a heavy-based saucepan. Add the lemon verbena, and place over a medium heat. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat slightly and cook for 5-8 minutes, or until the blackcurrants have burst and the sugar has dissolved. Stir once or twice to help dissolve the sugar.

Remove the blackcurrants from the heat and allow to cool slightly. While this is happening, immerse the gelatine in a bowl of cold water and leave to soften. Once the blackcurrant mixture has cooled, pass it through a strainer, pressing firmly on the fruit using a wooden spoon to extract as much juice as possible.

Remove the gelatine from the water, squeeze to remove any liquid, then add to the warm blackcurrant syrup. Stir well to combine and strain again. Divide the jelly into four attractive vessels and leave to cool. Once cooled, place the jellies in the fridge to set – this should take no more than a couple of hours.

Serve straight from the fridge, on its own or with a little pouring cream and a bowl of blackberries and raspberries.

Blackberry crisp

This lovely, simple dessert is like a crumble but with a softer, more buttery topping. It takes no more than five minutes to make.

Serves 4-6

5 punnets of blackberries
100g/31/2oz caster sugar
The juice and zest of one orange

For the topping

120g/4oz soft brown sugar
140g/41/2oz plain flour
120g/4oz unsalted butter, chilled

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Scatter the berries into an oven-proof serving dish, large enough to hold them comfortably. Sprinkle the sugar casually over the top, along with the orange zest. Pour over the orange juice – but do not bother to stir anything in evenly.

For the topping, place the sugar and flour into a bowl and toss lightly with your fingertips. Grate the butter into the bowl and work the whole lot together, again using your fingers, until it is the texture of course sand. Scatter the topping fairly evenly over the berries and place on the middle shelf of the oven. Cook uncovered for 20-25 minutes or until the topping is golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly – it is also very good at room temperature. Serve straight from the dish, accompanied by a jug of cold double cream.

The Forager by Wendy Fogarty

Petersham's food sourcer on the best places to pick and buy berries...

Chegworth Valley, Kent (www.chegworth valley.co.uk). Sells raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, blackberries and gooseberries at London's Borough Market and various farmers' markets (see www.lfm.org.uk for details)

The Dorset Blueberry Company (www.dorset-blueberry.co.uk). Sells blueberry plants as well as plenty of fresh fruit. Available from its Littlemoors farm shop in Winbourne and at farmers' markets in the south of England

Berry Hill Fruit Farm, Monmouthshire (www.berryhillfruitfarm.co.uk). A pick-your-own farm shop and garden centre

Garsons Farm Shop, Esher, Surrey (www.garsons.co.uk). Cherries, strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants – one of the largest pick-your-own farms in England

Perryhill Orchards, East Sussex (www.perryhillorchards.co.uk). Sells blackberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries and, from August, plums, all grown on its pick-your-own farm

Secretts, Godalming, Surrey (www.secretts.co.uk). Gooseberries, raspberries and strawberries by mail order.