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Friday, May 30, 2014

It’s the Berries

From the Fields Dept.: Six years ago, I wrote the following piece to celebrate this very time of year. I don’t know if the berry patches cited below will be offering their wares this year, but it’s worth a try.


WE CELEBRATED MAY with asparagus, a rewarding if altruistic passion. June lets us let ourselves go with that compact, unspeakably delicious indulgence, the strawberry. And it’s not even that indulgent. In its unsullied state, it’s low in calories and high in protein, potassium, fiber and vitamin C. And its sweetness comes naturally, provided you don’t dump refined sugar over the thing.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
And why should you? Because we’ve been supermarket-trained to accept the mealy, tasteless berries of mass production – semi-ripe berries that demand sweetening. Not so in June. According to a Cornell study published in 2000, New York ranked seventh in the country for strawberry cultivation, harvesting from about 1,600 acres to produce a crop valued at nearly $8.3 million.

Strawberry plants, which are a member of the rose family, are short-lived, good for about three years, and the constant replanting makes it a labor-intensive crop. It’s very dependant on weather conditions, and some of the growers I spoke with this week fared poorly enough to have nothing to offer.

The most popular plants grown in this area are hybrids, bred, not surprisingly, for berries that are plump and sweet. It takes about thirty days for the plants to go from flowers to ripened fruit, with a two- to three-week harvest period following.

Those berries soon will be appearing at farmstands and selected stores, and, if you’re ambitious and don’t mind getting the seat of your pants stained red, at U-Pick farms where you’re let loose in the fields with a basket.

Among the local farms that will be offering pick-your-own and/or buy-them-picked strawberries are Altamont Orchards on Dunsville Rd., Altamont (861-6515), which typically offers berries anywhere from the first to last week in June. The Berry Patch of Stone Wall Hill Farm is on Route 22 in Stephentown (733-6772), near Pittsfield, and has a harvest that has become part of the tradition at the Williamstown Theatre Festival: Berry Patch strawberries are served in the opening-night champagne.

Look for berries about the second week in June at Best Berry Farm, 1078 Best Road, East Greenbush (286-0607). Bowman Orchards on Sugar Hill Rd. in Rexford (371-2042) offers several varieties, including Seascape, Sweet Charlie, Chandler, Honeyoye, Allstar, and Jewel.

Although their best known for their singular melons, Hand Melon Farm on Route 29 in Greenwich (692-2376) is hoping to start strawberry picking on the tenth. And Indian Ladder Farms, 342 Altamont Road, Altamont (765-2956) has added strawberries to its many offerings, and will turn you loose in the fields early in June.

Nothing beats nibbling fresh berries from the field, but my favorite strawberries dessert was served at a restaurant called Tra Vigne in St. Helena, California, where the berries had been allowed to sit in a little balsamic vinegar before they were presented.

Add whipped cream to a serving of strawberries and you have a complete springtime meal. Put a fresh-baked biscuit beneath for strawberry shortcake. If your culinary sensibility runs along fancier lines, whip up a sabayon sauce – two egg yolks mixed with a half-eggshell apiece of Marsala, white wine and sugar, whisked over a double boiler until stiff and foamy, then chilled – and mix in the berries.

One of the random facts associated with strawberries is that it was considered poisonous in Argentina until the mid-19th century. One of the strawberry’s early-developing garden companions is rhubarb, the leaves of which truly are toxic, the reddish stems of which are tart and tasty (and a traditional laxative).

Rhubarb and strawberries have a natural affinity. As I learned at Tra Vigne, sweetness and tartness enhance one another, and it happens nowhere better than in a strawberry-rhubarb pie.

I’ve found no better than what’s served at Bubby’s Pie Co. on Hudson Street in lower Manhattan. Chef Ron Silver collected his best recipes in the book Bubby’s Homemade Pies, and here’s a brief version of his version:

Pastry for a 9-inch double-crust pie
3 cups halved or sliced strawberries
3 cups (1 ½ pounds) rhubarb, cut into half-inch pieces
1 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling on the top crust
4 ½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon orange zest
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed

Line a 9-inch pie tin with a bottom crust. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Combine the strawberries, rhubarb, sugar, flour, zest and salt. Toss them as you would a salad. Scrape the fruit into the pie tin, dot it with the butter, and cover it with the top crust. Trim and crimp the crust; chill for 10 minutes in the freezer. Cut vent slits and sprinkle the top crust with sugar.

Bake the pie on a lipped baking sheet for 10 minutes, or until the crust looks dry, blistered and blonde. Turn the oven down to 375 degrees and bake for at least 30 minutes more, or until the crust is golden brown and visible juices are thickened and bubbling.

Cool the pie completely, at least a few hours, before cutting and serving it.

It’s a simple recipe, but that’s what strawberries are all about: a self-contained feast in miniature. We celebrate them next month as the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley celebrated them,

    ’Long about knee-deep in June,
    ’Bout the time strawberries melts
    On the vine.

Metroland Magazine, 29 May 2008

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