Great Ingredients: Ultimate Strawberries

How do I love thee, let me count….well, you get the idea.   I think that strawberries are the most exquisite of fruit.  Not those hard, sour, supermarket berries consumed by many whose only positive quality is their red color, but the carefully tended varieties that strawberry lovers like me hunt down in farmers markets or in our own strawberry patch — and sometimes, in far-away lands.  More on that later.

I love everything about strawberries, a member of the rose family.  Although strawberry season is nearing an end, if you’re a strawberry freak like I am, keep the following information in mind for next season.  You’ll have time to plant some sublime varieties in forgotten corners of your yard or even in planter boxes or containers.  And delicious, local berries can still be found at the farmers market and elsewhere.

Available on the Peninsula are the wonderful Chandler strawberries grown by Swanton Berry Farm on the coast in Davenport.

The easiest way to get your hands on great strawberries is to buy those grown by the Swanton Berry Farm, which has a booth at Sunday’s Menlo Park farmers market and whose fruit sometimes shows up at Whole Foods locations. These celestial berries are not just sweeter than the average kind, but have a more intense flavor.  This isn’t accidental; the Swanton folks put great effort into producing the most outstanding product.  Here’s how:

– Grow the right varieties.  It’s unlikely that the berries you buy at the supermarket or — if you’re ambitious — plant in your yard from standard nursery seedlings are Chandler or Seascape.  Among hundreds of varieties, these are it when it comes to tasty berries.  Swanton grows both varieties but favors Chandler.  I’d heard years ago from some old berry-loving nurserymen that Chandler was the best variety.  Believe it.  Chandler and Seascape berries produce a lot less fruit than the standard varieties.  Like with wine grapes, less crop, better taste.

– Pick them when fully ripe.  This isn’t what happens to supermarket berries, sadly.  The luscious Swanton berries are thus more fragile and aren’t designed to travel too far.   That’s a good thing.

– Don’t over-fertilize, over-water or do any of the other things aimed at producing lots of mediocre fruit.

The most entertaining way of getting your hands on Swanton berries is traveling to their farm and doing the U-pick thing. It’s cheaper, too.

I believe that Swanton’s cooler coastal location is another secret of their great berries. This is in contrast to the vast acreage in the hot parts of California where commercial strawberries are grown (our state produces 88% of the domestic crop) in sweltering fields full of high-bearing plants encased in black plastic and treated with toxic fumigants and pesticides.  If you’d like to see happy strawberry plants, drive to the coast and visit their farm, where you can get the best deal on their great berries through their U-pick operation.

If you’ve got a gardening gene, search out Chandler and Seascape seedlings at better nurseries (perhaps they’ll need to order you some) or online.  And follow the same approach as the Swanton folks do with their organic berries as described above.

While I love the Swanton berries, I’ve been equally captivated with Seascape berries found at local farmers markets (“local,” in this case, means Palo Alto). If I don’t arrive too late at the downtown market on Saturday after the small supply is sold, I’ll snap up some Seascapes from Green Oaks Creek Farm, a tiny operation in Pescadero run by an environmentally minded couple. Like Swanton, their coastal operation is ideal for these lower-yield, tasty berry varieties.

Seascape strawberries are plumb, medium-sized bites of heavenly fruit and are becoming popular with local farmers because of their terrific taste.

I’ve encountered Seascapes at the Sunday market in  South Palo Alto as well, such as at the Lucero stand, whose farms are in the Lodi area.  The Lucero Seascapes are tasty but not quite as intense, which I attribute to the hotter locale.  And swing by the Scream Sorbet stand at this Sunday market to discover whether they’re scooping any of their divine Seascape sorbet, which captures the exotic essence of this wonderful variety.

Since farmers in our foodie region understand the premium that many of us put on great-tasting ingredients, they’re more likely to grow the best varieties and treat them right.  Check out your local farmers market. If the strawberry variety isn’t stated, ask the farmer what kind he/she grows, but let your sample taste be your ultimate guide.

Given my love for strawberries, I’ve posted several recipes that utilize them. Search the “berries” category or use the general search function.   Some favorites are green salads with berries, ricotta salata and hazelnuts and the captivating strawberry gazpacho recipe I extracted from chef David Kinch of Manresa. Both are here along with others.

Another of my favorite fast berry recipes — and I do mean fast — is an almost-instant dessert that starts with Whole Foods “cream biscuits,” available in the bakery and nicely under-sweetened and crumbly.  Sure, you could make your own shortcake or whatever, but these are fine in a pinch.  I nuke them briefly to warm them up, split them and pile on sliced berries treated one of two ways (tossed with lemon juice and a little sugar or a little sugar and balsamic vinegar, which is quite diving with berries), then plop a scoop of frozen yogurt or ice cream next to the topped biscuit.  Voila!  It’s kind of like strawberry shortcake but lighter and quicker.  Drizzle on some warmed, thinned chocolate topping to amp it up.

Consider buying strawberry seedlings like this as edible landscaping for your yard.   After all, ornamental strawberries are often used as groundcover.  Why not produce a crop?

Walk on the Wild Side

While many of you might think our strawberry discussion is over, it’s actually just begun.  Yes, the easiest-to-find strawberries are the regular kind but perhaps the most delectable are some “wild” strawberry varieties and hybrids.   I discovered the latter by accident.  I’ve  taken many trips to France for both work and holidays, but I still recall the amazing taste when I first tried what looked like smaller berries purchased at a marché.

The next time I saw these petite berries, I inquired with the vendor in my limited French and was told the name and that they were related to wild strawberries (fraises des bois), which turned out not to be entirely accurate.  Forever after, I hunted down these berries at farmers markets and at some high-end groceries in Paris.  For example, no foodie should skip La Grande Épicerie de Paris, an amazing gourmet market that’s part of and next door to Le Bon Marché, a fancy department store on the Left Bank.

An irresistible strawberry variety grown in France is haunting Mara des Bois, a hybrid variety

These berries, called Mara des Bois, are distinctive.  They’re smaller, uniformly redder and stubbier than ordinary strawberries, which are also grown widely in France. Since not all the strawberries at the marché are this variety, if you’re fortunate enough to be visiting and shopping in France, it’s wise to inquire with the vendors until you’re able to identify the lovely Maras.

Interesting backstory: In 1990, Jacques Marionnet, a French strawberry breeder, set out to create the ultimate berry, including having an intense aroma.  Up to that point, the most fragrant strawberries were the tiny, so-called wild strawberries (variously called fraises des bois, alpine strawberry, woodland strawberry, European strawberry or  fragaria vesca), which due to a genetic mismatch, are difficult to cross with regular strawberries.

Stubby, intense Mara des Bois

Marionnet cross-bred and tinkered with four heirloom varieties and came up with a plant that produced a berry that was somehow richly imbued with methyl anthranilate, the volatile compound that gives fraises des bois their alluring perfume. The resulting Mara des Bois has fruit that offers a rare balance of sweetness and acidity, the musk of wild strawberries and succulent, red-orange flesh that spreads across your palate like buttery ambrosia.

During one business trip to Paris, I found some Mara des Bois seedling six-packs in a nursery.  Overjoyed, I bought 12 little plants and carefully smuggled them back to California in my luggage, planting them in my yard.  If I then had a raised bed for these precious little guys, they probably would have produced more berries but the small crop they produced was just as tasty as their French brothers.  This was years ago and their great-great-great-great grandsons are still out there, occasionally producing a single, wonderful berry.

If space is tight, consider buying a strawberry pot to grow your berries, although the crop might be a tad small.

Since my smuggling days, Mara des Bois plants have slowly made their way to the U.S.  Although rare, they’re available at some nurseries and it’s best to research sources online.   In very infrequent instances — none in the Bay Area I’m aware of — miniscule quantities of Mara des Bois fruit for high prices has been sold at farmers markets like the famous one in Santa Monica.

Tiny, pointed fraises des bois are the most exotic, tasty berries around

If you’re after aroma and intense taste, seeds or seedlings that will produce fingertip-sized fraises des bois are easier to find and grow than their Mara cousins.  While I’d read about them for ages, I first tasted the fruit years ago in a fraises des bois ice cream consumed at Chez Panisse in Berkeley that is still my benchmark for berry ice cream.  Since that wonderful mouthful, I’ve been growing the plants (not surprisingly, they look like a miniature strawberry plant) for years with varying degrees of success, with the limitations being my yard rather than any innate growing difficulty.

Based on my experience, raised beds or planters or locations with lots of fine soil will do the trick nicely.  Alas, I’ve got none of these. Since the plants producing these tiny berries don’t like it hot, place them in partial shade locations and treat them like edible landscaping.  It’s delicious fun to harvest your sweet little crop on sunny mornings.  I’ve bought my seedlings from various places over the years, from farmers markets to local nurseries.

The tiny wild strawberries with the most intense flavor and perfume are the yellow and white varieties.

Like Mara des Bois, fruit from the little fraises are virtually impossible to find at a farmers market or other retailer.  Given how easy they are to grow, consider planting a bed of the yellow or white varieties, which are a conversation starter (gold, miniature strawberries?!?) as well as the pinnacle of intensely perfumed berries. Early this year, I found gold fraises des bois seedlings from Santa Cruz-based Upstarts (which used to have a booth at the Menlo Park farmers market) at local nurseries.

Plant seedlings in early spring and you’ll have berries well into the fall.  I’ve been planting these little berries for years, obtained from a variety of places, so I’ve seen a lot of different plants.  I’ve occasionally had fraises des bois plants that sent out runners, but this is somewhat unusual.  Most of them, like full-sized strawberries, propagate via the seeds on the berries.  If you’re sometimes neglectful, don’t be surprised to see little volunteer plants popping up in your patch. These plants are not annuals. They’ll keep on growing after the first season but it’s wise to divide them each year or they put their energy into the plant rather than the fruit and will eventually be a thick-tangled mound rather than a happy, young, fruit-producing plant. Easier still is replacing them with new seedlings each season.

One thing I guarantee.  If you taste the fruit from Chandler or Seascape strawberry plants, or Mara des Bois, or the lilliputian fraises des bois berries, you won’t want to ever eat supermarket berries again.

Ever wondered what these plastic-covered mounds that are all over the Central Valley?  They’re commercial strawberries, whose covering enables fumigants, pesticides and other chemicals to be kept all around the plants.  Romantic, huh?

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