June 20, 2007 at 12:00AM
by Leslie Land
Fair warning: I'm in strawberry delirium at the moment. We (well, Bill actually) got a big bowl of them for Father's Day from Karen, Celia's mother, and they were the Platonic ideal: firm but tender, very juicy, flavorful, sweet, and FRAGRANT? Omigosh. They perfumed the entire kitchen all afternoon, until I made them into shortcake -- a subject about which I feel strongly. Biscuits, only biscuits, do not talk to me about cake. Our friend Karen Crain, with a home-grown gift.
Or don't bother to talk about making anything. When you get strawberries this good all you need to do is eat them. The part that takes effort is acquisition. Getting industrial strawberries is easy; like industrial tomatoes they're available everywhere always. And all of the tomato wisdom about far tastier when fresh and local certainly applies. But with strawberries vine-ripened matters far more because strawberries - unlike tomatoes - cannot continue to ripen after they leave the plant. They do get softer as they age (except the gigantic iron strawberries sold for chocolate-dipping). But they don't get any sweeter or more intensely flavorful. Whatever goodness they have when they're picked, that's all they'll ever have. Yet ripe strawberries are fragile and short-lived. Result: only berries that need not travel far or change hands often can be allowed to ripen fully. And only growers who sell locally can risk growing home garden varieties known more for flavor than durability. So if you crave strawberry delerium -- and don't happen to know Karen -- the places to get fruit are farmers' markets
, pick-your-own farms, and your own backyard. Karen got her plants from a friend and doesn't know their name, but these look a lot like Sparkle, a home garden variety introduced in 1942 and still popular in the Northeast, the region where it does best. At the Market:
go for sprightly green calyces (the cap of leaves at the top) and stems that are fresh-looking. Don't be put off by small berries or berries that aren't all the same size; many of the tastiest varieties are neither large nor uniform. Some very sweet berries are not dark red, but if they're light it doesn't hurt to ask for a taste. And beware of super deep color too; the berries may be so close to overripe they'll melt before you get them home. At Pick-your-own farms:
Try to get there either at the beginning or toward the end of the day. In many places people make side money picking at these farms and selling the fruit for a small profit. They show up early; they know what they're doing; and they're fast. By the time they leave, a lot of the fruit that was ripe at daybreak will be leaving with them. Fortunately, they seldom come back for a second round and strawberries can ripen in a matter of hours. On hot days late afternoon can offer great picking, especially when the weather is so brutal it discourages the competition. In the Garden:
Strawberries are already among the easiest fruits to grow, and if Colony Collapse Disorder
continues they're going to be an even better bet. In contrast to most other soft fruits, strawberries don't rely primarily on honey bees; our native wild bees pollinate a lot of them and can continue to do so â assuming, of course, our native bees are still around themselves -- A disquisition for another day. To return to our berries, Choosing plants:
Leaving aside specialty berries like fraises des bois, there are three types to consider: June bearers, everbearers and day neutrals. For descriptions of individual varieties consult plant sellers like Nourse Farms
and Daisy Farms
. June Bearers
-- might better be called once bearers. They make a single large crop in spring and that's it. They're the original garden strawberry, the tastiest of the large-fruited types, and the one that offers far and away the widest choice of varieties. Everbearers
-- their better name is twice bearers, one crop in spring and another, smaller crop in fall, with only a few berries here and there in between. Quality varies widely and is strongly climate dependant. Be sure you choose one that's right for your region. Day Neutrals
-- keep fruiting from spring to fall, with the largest and tastiest fruit often coming as the weather cools down. Berries tend to be on the small side but there are a lot when you add up a whole season's worth.
Writer Leslie Land blogs about gardening, food and design at Leslieland.com.