Here in coastal Virginia, strawberry season is wrapping up. Between dehydrating, freezing, eating fresh, and making jam, I picked over a hundred pounds of them this year. I am blessed to have several Pick-Your-Own Farms in the area, so I’ve sworn off grocery store strawberries. As many of you know, once you’ve tasted fresh picked, local berries, it’s difficult to justify paying for the tasteless, colorless grocery offerings. There are, however, several tips to ensure a successful trip to the strawberry fields. For those of you in New England and the Midwest, where strawberries are just coming into season, I offer this advice:
Talk to the farmer and ask what varieties of berries they have. Then, before you start picking, taste each kind. Just like a 'Golden Delicious' apple tastes very different from a 'Honey Crisp,' strawberries, too, will have their own texture and sweetness. Most people I’ve spoken to don’t realize this, and they blindly pick whatever berries are ripe. In our area, farmers tend to grow 'Sweet Charlies,' 'Chandlers,' 'Camarosas,' 'Albions,' and 'Festivals.' Some are firm, some are super sweet, some aren’t as sweet but still taste great … you can decide, based on taste and how you plan to use them, which you like best. And here’s the kicker:The same variety of berry grown on one farm will taste different than those grown on another farm.
I love the 'Sweet Charlies' grown at one local farm, but not at another, where they had no taste at all (which is okay, because I love THAT farm’s 'Camarosas' best of all!) Don’t assume the busiest farm has the best berries. I was shocked to find that the ‘most popular’ field here was not only more expensive than all the rest, but their berries hardly had any taste whatsoever! If you’re lucky enough to have a choice, visit each farm and taste before you pick at each of them.
Berries ripened in sun will be sweeter, and those picked after a rain will taste washed out and won’t last as long once you get them home. To ensure the best berries, plan your picking based on the weather.
In most cases, the best picking will be at the far end of each row. Most people start at the nearest point and finish before they get to the end. However, if the farm you are picking at employs their own pickers, they may start at the far end and work towards the middle. In that case, I always plunk myself in the middle of the rows and usually find it’s easy picking! Also, regardless of the weather, I always try to wear boots when picking. This is because most fields here are clay and irrigation drainage is an issue. Obviously, the general population will avoid muddy rows, but not me. That’s where the best picking is because no one else has been there!
Don’t plan to pick your berries in buckets. To avoid smashed berries, use wide, shallow containers no more than 4 or 5 inches deep.Many farms will close early if they’ve been picked out or if weather is a concern. Call before you go, or check the farm’s Facebook page if they have one.
My kids knew when I’d gone picking while they were in school, because dessert that evening would be fresh berries with a special topping. Freshly made whipped cream is delicious, but I don’t usually have cream in the fridge and don’t believe in making ‘special trips’ to the store. Instead, I made do with what we had on hand and discovered that sour cream, and even Greek Yogurt, make a great topping for fresh berries. I mixed in a little vanilla and a small bit of brown sugar, and everyone raved. Adding some shredded coconut and slivered almonds knocked it out of the park. If the only strawberries you’ve eaten come in a plastic carton, do yourself a favor and seek out a field where you can pick your own. You’ll be glad you did!