The strawberry is a sign of spring in full swing. Her neat appearance, modest curves and sweet, enticing aroma create quite a stir at City Market—everyone wants to smell, and touch, and move closer to this bright berry. Children cannot be called off. She catches your eye, peeking out from beyond the spinach and between the leeks. You push forward, elbowing innocent bystanders, stumbling against a stroller, anxious now that she may be disappearing before your admiring eyes. Perhaps you notice her adornment of a simple white flower, a delicate stem, an emerald leaf that perfectly sets off her ruby red complexion.
You draw closer, anticipating the rows of pint and quart containers, knocking aside the last apples, the bunches of kale and chard, even the upright, rigid leeks lined up like sentries. Her intoxicating perfume reaches out for you like beckoning arms, drawing you past the price tag and deeper, deeper, deeper into her beauty. In a moment she presses against your lips, her tender texture yielding, melting, collapsing into you. This kiss is the kiss of a springtime lover, returning year after year for a brief liaison that leaves you momentarily satisfied, and longing for more.
Today’s cultivated strawberry was hybridized in Brittany, France in the 1740s. It combines the large and abundant fruit of Fragaria chiloensis (native to South America) with the superior aroma and flavor of Fragaria virginiana (native to North America, and still present in the woods and fencerows of Central Virginia). This diminutive foremother blooms and bears fruit in the spring as well, and should certainly be sought and exalted—but the pithy consistency is a drawback, and one could spend all day wriggling underneath shrubs and fences to collect enough to make a single jar of jam.
Modern science to the rescue! Nowadays there are hybrids to suit many different purposes—not all of them noble. For instance, there is a variety that’s a heavy bearer of very large fruit that can be harvested underripe, and then shipped to ripen along the way.
Meanwhile, most U-Pick strawberry operations would choose an array of varieties in an attempt to prolong the season. For instance, including a portion of a Short Day bloomer would indicate an earlier start to the season; including a June Bearing variety would provide quantity in the late spring weather, when folks are ready to pack up the kids and make a day of it. Home gardeners and diversified family farms usually select one of several Everbearing varieties, which stay viable from spring until fall but tend to produce the most in the mild weather that accompanies spring and fall.
Strawberries are susceptible to fungus and mildew, but require copious amounts of water to produce fruit in quantity. Ideal berry days will have some rain and plenty of sun to dry the leaves and fruit before they begin to rot; berries picked when they are wet will begin to degrade very quickly, even if refrigerated.
Commercial berry producers have come up with a system called plasticulture that is observed by the U-Pick producers here in Central Virginia; plasticulture relies on a barrier of black plastic on top of mounded rows of berry plants. The plastic suppresses weeds, and covers irrigation tape or tubes, meaning the roots get the moisture they love, while the berries will only get spritzed by Mother Nature (who also has the ability to dry them). Berry crops are almost always treated with fungicide of some sort, while smaller growers might be more likely to go organic on berries and leave the yield up to chance.
The best berry is not refrigerated. I repeat: The best berry is not refrigerated. Eat it immediately, or store it at a cool room temperature—but still eat it immediately. If the berries are for a dessert or a salad, squeezing some lemon over the cut pieces will heighten flavor and draw out the juice of the fruit—or try an aged balsamic vinegar.
Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is a chef and local foods advocate and consultant. Read more about her at http://alocalnotion.word press.com.
Recipe for success
Easy strawberry cake
Ideal for Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, or Father’s Day.
1-2 quarts fresh strawberries, room temperature
1 tsp. sugar, or 1 tsp. honey
2 pints whipping cream, plus salt and vanilla and strawberry liquid
1 8" roundcake (any white, yellow, or sponge cake of good quality will do)
Set aside a few perfectly cute berries to garnish the cake. Hull and slice the remaining berries in half or in quarters, capturing all of the juice that you can and dropping them into a large glass or ceramic bowl. Add sugar or honey, and swirl gently in the bowl to combine. Keep this at room temperature for a few hours before preparing the cream.
Using a chilled bowl and whisk, or an electric mixer (if you must!), add to the whipping cream a scant pinch of fine salt, plus a few drops of vanilla. Drizzle the juice from the berries into the cream, then whip cream to soft peaks, and return to refrigerator.
To assemble the shortcake, first cut your cake of choice in half HORIZONTALLY. This will take a long knife and some patience; the intent is to use the soft “inner” cake as the vehicle for the strawberries and cream. So, the bottom piece remains the bottom piece as it is. Spread about half of the whipped cream on the cake, then about half of the strawberries (including some juice).
Flip the remaining layer of cake so that the fluffy “inner” cake is on top; plop the rest of the whipped cream in the middle, then squoosh it so that it barely begins to slip over the sides of the cake (and the soft middle section will begin to ooze out as well—this is a good thing). Add the last of the berries on top of the cream, and drizzle with any remaining liquid. Some shavings of chocolate, or a grating of nutmeg or of a chocolate espresso bean, will only improve the celebration.
This cake is best about two hours after assembling it; protect from tiny fingers, but leave it at room temperature.