It is strawberry season! One of my favourite June rituals is to go strawberry-picking with my children. We are blessed to live here in Victoria, where we have the choice of over a dozen U-Pick strawberry farms within a 20 minute drive of the city.
But it is one thing to have all this strawberry abundance. It is another thing to actually come home with some decent berries. First you have to find the right farm, one which grows an actually delicious variety of strawberry (more on that coming up). Next (and this is something that many people don’t realize) you have to know how to pick properly to get the best berries. Common mistakes, brought on by the excitement of berry-lust: picking strawberries that are too ripe, strawberries that are too dry, and berries that look good but have no flavour. Let this picking guide help you find the best farms and the simplest tips for satisifaction in berry-picking.
So, for farms: I usually go to Oldfield Orchard and Bakery. It is one of the last remaining farms on the Saanich Peninsula (that I have found) to still grow small, sweet, tender berries. Many other farms I have visited seem to grow a variation on the large tasteless strawberry that you can buy at any supermarket. And that’s just demoralizing. There are other farms that I know of that sell delicious berries by the flat, but most don’t have a U-Pick option. That said, if you frequent any berry farms on the Peninsula that you highly recommend, please let me know! And let other know, by posting in the comments below.
Berry variety: I am really partial to this tiny rich red strawberry I have in a pot on my porch. It is an heirloom variety called Red Royal (or something like that). Sadly, I have never found this awesome berry at a U-Pick… sigh… Next best is the small sweet Rainier variety (above). It actually tastes like a strawberry should! It doesn’t keep very well, so plan on eating and/or freezing within three days. Oldfield grows Rainier Strawberries, as well as the larger, firmer, and more tart variety called Tillamook. Last year, I picked some of both and found that the Tillamook weren’t as nice for out-of-hand eating, but they made excellent jam and sauce, and froze beautifully.
Now, for the picking tips.
First, beware of the ripest berries! This is a common mistake. Out in the sunny field, the dark red berries look SO enticing and SO delicious. By the time you bring them home, though, they are starting to get mushy. By the afternoon, they are fermented-tasting, and by evening they have collected all the fruit flies in the neighbourhood. Go for berries that are more of a straight red, or a bit orangey (see above). They might not look as good in the field, but they are better-tasting and longer-lasting. (Hint: no matter the colour of the berry, if it slips off the stem when you pick it, it is too ripe.)
Next, look for berries that are plump and shiny, with the seeds depressed in. Berries with the seeds sitting on the surface are generally dry. Another clue is how close the seeds are. If they are very close together, chances are the berry will be dry and tasteless, almost bitter. Look for berries with the seeds stretched father apart. (A caveat – you don’t want a Rainier strawberry to be too big and too plump, because that could be a sign of a water-logged and tasteless berry. You will get better at discerning this difference as you pick.)
Next, use your ears. Listen to the sound of the berries popping off the stem. A perfectly ripe strawberry makes a distinctive snapping or popping sounds as it is picked. Ok, it is really the stem that makes this sound, but still listen for it. This doesn’t help until you have actually made the choice to pick a berry, and sometimes it still won’t pop. But you will get better at finding the right berries with practice.
Finally, look for bug holes. Really! Not only is this a good sign that your chosen farm is not spraying a ton of pesticides everywhere, but also that your berries are ripe and sweet. Bugs and slugs know it, they can smell which berries are perfect and sweet and delicious. I always eat the bug-hole-ridden berries in the field and they are spectacular every time! If you have found a bug-eaten berry in a cluster of other ripe ones, chances are they will all be delicious. A funny axiom, but a true one in my experience.
Even while being a discerning picker like this it is easy to pick 15 pounds in a hour. My youngest son (who is excellent at finding the snapping berries) and I picked 23 lbs just over an hour the other day. And what did I do with all those berries? I froze some; I put some in smoothies and on breakfast porridge and in yogurt for school lunches; I made strawberry shortcake three times; and I opened the fridge and gloated over my abundance of ruby red berries.