Strawberries and their berry brethren have recently become the most popular fruit. (Driscoll's)
Their crimson hue and intoxicating aroma beckon from farmer stands this time of year as the strawberry season chugs along in full swing. But with apologies to Gertrude Stein, a strawberry is not a strawberry is not a strawberry. There's an enormous taste -- and health -- difference between the piles of plastic-encased fragaria ananassa (the modern cultivated strawberry) in the supermarket and what can be found at farmers markets and even one's own backyard, where this fruit isn't too demanding to grow.
Besides sleuthing out the tastiest varieties (like Chandler and Seascape and sources, strawberry lovers will find ultimate mouth delight in the lesser-known but hugely delicious cousins of this popular fruit like lilliputian fraises des bois (so-called "wild strawberries" that actually aren't wild) and mara des bois, a lusciously tasty hybrid widely cultivated in France. But we're getting ahead of ourselves a bit.
"Strawberry." The source of this English word remains a mystery, since the practice of mulching with straw came long after the plant's name emerged. In the rose family, the genus fragaria (the collective name for these berries) was first grown as a crop in 14th century France and has been a hit ever since. An excellent source of vitamins and minerals, strawberries and their berry brethren recently nudged aside apples, bananas and oranges to become America's most-consumed fruit. And that's part of the problem.
To meet the American demand for strawberries, 88 percent of which are cultivated along the California coast, commercial growers have long used disturbing techniques to maximize their production. They deploy pesticides and fumigants, the latter stripping anything living from soil before planting. In addition, conventional strawberries have been selectively bred for color, shape, shelf life and resistance to bruising rather than great taste. This year, strawberries for the first time outranked apples as number one on the "Dirty Dozen," so named by the Environmental Working Group for fruits and vegetables that are highest in pesticide residue.
Most horrifying is how many strawberry farmers have been playing a long-term game of musical chairs, shifting from one dangerous chemical fumigant to another after each is banned for harming the environment or people. Strawberries are sensitive to soil pathogens, hence the fumigants and pesticides, but a few farmers have long been pushing for a better, healthier solution: growing organic berries, which is a more expensive crop to grow but a tastier, less worrisome fruit to eat.
Although only nine percent of California's total strawberry production is currently organic, the supply has been increasing significantly in recent years. It's about time, according to Jim Cochran, who was the lone voice in the wilderness back in the '80s when he became the state's first organic strawberry grower. Swanton Berry Farm, his rustic operation on the coast near Davenport, doesn't just cultivate organic berries but reflects a 30-year quest by Cochran to grow the most completely delicious strawberries possible.
"I concentrate on flavor," he says. "The berries must have the right combination of volatile oils -- for the smell -- and sugars. It's not just about having a sweet strawberry but a strawberry that also has lots of taste." He has tried reams of strawberry varieties over the years and has settled on Chandler as the ultimate strawberry. His goal is achieving the whole package: a berry that's lusciously sweet but with a complex, balanced taste reflecting a touch of acid, along with an intense perfume.
But the road to outstanding flavor also involves care in not overwatering or overfertilizing. Cochran compares it to growing grapes for fine wines. "Other people will be growing decent grapes for a decent wine but they'll have more tons per acre. I'm not shooting for high yield but for high taste," he notes.
Another requirement is picking the fruit as ripe as possible and getting these fragile strawberries to consumers quickly for this reason. Thus Swanton berries don't go much beyond the Bay Area, showing up in farmers markets, a few groceries and -- most enjoyably -- as "you-pick" fruit for those trekking to the gorgeous coast-side locations of Cochran's farm. A side benefit of visiting Swanton Berry Farm is how the intense aroma fills your car on the way home and beckons you to pop these red delights into your mouth.
Cochran's season is from April through October, hoping that drought doesn't impact his water-limited operation, as happened in previous years. "Strawberries are so demanding as a crop," he explains. "They're very management intensive because you've got to watch everything every single day. The fact is that if you grow a strawberry that tastes like cardboard and lasts for two weeks on the shelf, you make more money."
The Chandler variety favored by Swanton Berry Farm is a particularly low-yield strawberry plant so fewer organic farmers grow it than higher-production varieties like Albion, which are more plentiful at Bay Area farmers markets. A berry purist, Cochran sniffs at this variety, which produces twice the crop of Chandler, he says.
Another delicious and less-available strawberry variety among organic growers is Seascape. Often candy-sweet, it's a somewhat smaller berry but has gathered such devoted fans among strawberry lovers that they'll show up early at farmers market stands to snag the small supply before it runs out. Gia Matzinger of Green Oaks Creek Farm in Pescadero grows Seascapes and Albions, hedging her bets because the Albion variety is a larger producer and is in peak output later in the year while Seascape pops out the most berries in spring, she says.
Passion for Seascapes is an ongoing issue for her farm. "We have a bunch of customers who really prefer the Seascapes so that's been a challenge -- getting people to try the other variety. There aren't as many farmers growing Seascapes," says Matzinger. Fortunately, both varieties grown at her farm, a little jewel-box tucked into a mini-valley near the ocean, are quite delicious.
Those vehement over specific strawberry varieties should keep in mind that the ultimate taste of, say, Albion -- the most common commercial variety among organic farmers in California --can vary a bit from grower to grower. Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco feeds purists by seeking out excellent-tasting berries from farmers, featuring Chandlers from Swanton Berry Farm along with Seascapes from five other coastal growers, as well as some up-and-coming varieties like Éclair and Sweet Ann.
The optimal strategy for strawberry fans is to inquire about the varieties of the fruit grown by the farmers market vendors they patronize to identify favorites, then start seeking out these kinds when shopping at the farm stands. Those with a gardening gene might consider planting Chandler or Seascape or whatever variety they favor, since nurseries typically put varieties on the tag of the strawberry seedlings they sell. There is abundant information online about the best planting and growing techniques.
Other organizations are funneling resources into developing new berry varieties, most notably Driscoll's, the nation's largest player in the berry business. Close to half the organic strawberries purchased in the United States are branded Driscoll's and 34 percent of all strawberries sold, so this family-owned company has 30 scientists on the payroll refining and developing strawberry varieties. They fiddle with berry genetics to create fragaria ananassa that use less water, thrive without chemicals, withstand the rigors of picking and shipping and, of course, taste good.
The winners coming out of Driscoll's breeding programs such as Del Rey, the current most-planted kind for this company, are sent as seedlings to the firm's network of contracted growers, but Driscoll's scientists don't rest; a new variety only lasts about three years in the fields before being replaced.
Those who relentlessly suss out great-tasting strawberry varieties inevitably encounter the flavor benchmark: the pinkie-sized fraises des bois, which are variously called wild strawberries, alpine strawberries, woodland strawberries, European strawberries or fragaria vesca in botanical terms. Imbued with an intense perfume, these small, sweet, conical berries can be colored red, white or pale yellow (the lighter-colored versions are the most intense) and are magical in the mouth.
Fraises des bois don't actually grow wild here in California, alas, but this strain of berry is closer to the wild variety that does, which also shares the botanical name fragaria vesca. The native-to-our-state wild strawberries have even smaller, rounder red berries that aren't remotely as flavorful as fraises des bois or fragaria ananassa. Our local wild berries are relatively hearty perennial plants that happily spread via runners and can be an attractive groundcover in a native garden.
As for the delectable version of fragaria vesca, Swanton's Jim Cochran grew tiny fraises des bois years ago after requests from chefs but soon realized the difficulty of this endeavor. "They're extremely fragile. You must pick them and sell them the same day," he reports. Nevertheless, he's still a bit wistful when it comes to their divine characteristics. "I've tried 25 different varieties and the fraises des bois are definitely more fragrant," says Cochran.
Nowadays, avid consumers are most likely to encounter these hard-to-find berries on the menus of upscale chefs. Chez Panisse has served them over the years and on very rare occasions, they have popped up in markets. The best way to taste these wondrous little berries is to grow them at home, either in pots or the ground. They don't like full sun and growing them from seedlings is much easier than from seeds. They'll last for years in a garden when propagating with plant division.
Breeding strawberries has been called "a delicate science," which is particularly true with those who would love to cross fraises des bois with cultivated strawberries but have been stymied due to a genetic mismatch between the two strains. To the everlasting appreciation of French gourmets, however, a strawberry breeder named Jacques Marionnet cracked the code back in 1990, cross-breeding four heirloom varieties and producing a plant that was richly imbued with methyl anthranilate, the volatile compound that gives fraises des bois their alluring perfume.
Marionnet's creation is called mara des bois and offers a rare balance of sweetness and acidity, delivering the musk of wild strawberries and succulent flesh that spreads across your palate like buttery ambrosia. Mara des bois are smaller, uniformly redder and stubbier than ordinary strawberries and are widely cultivated in France. Unfortunately, they are not grown commercially in the United States since they share some of the challenging characteristics of the best-tasting strawberry varieties like delicacy and low yield.
Any habitué of the marchés (farmers markets) of France might well have snagged baskets of ambrosial mara des bois, which are hard to forget once they hit your nose and mouth. While these berries don't show up in stores, seedlings are now available from commercial nurseries for those who prize taste above all when it comes to strawberries. Like fraises des bois, this fine berry variety will reward those who like fiddling in the garden and can last for years through plant division.
Clearly, interest in ingredients that taste great is on the upswing in the Bay Area. In fact, the Driscoll's folks are seeing greater willingness among consumers to pay for super-premium strawberry varieties so it's not a stretch to say that more nectarous berries are in our future.
Swanton Berry Farm
Farm stand: 25 Swanton Rd., Davenport, CA 95017 [Map]
Open daily, 8am-7pm
Coastways Ranch u-pick: 640 Highway 1, Pescadero, CA 94060 [Map]
Open Fri-Sun, 10am-5pm
Available: Monterey Market, Berkeley; Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco; New Leaf Market, Santa Cruz; and some Whole Foods Markets
Farmers markets: Noe Valley (Saturday); Ferry Plaza (Saturday); Berkeley (Tuesday, Saturday); Marin (Thursday, Sunday); Menlo Park (Sunday); Santa Cruz (Wednesday); Aptos/Cabrillo College (Saturday)
Green Oaks Creek Farm
2060 CA-1, Pescadero, CA 94060
Tel: (650) 879-1009
Farmers markets: Palo Alto (Saturday); San Francisco/Mission Bay (Wednesday)