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Where To Buy The Best Strawberries

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Where To Buy The Best Strawberries

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.

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.

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.

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.

Considering the fact that California strawberries are a $2.6 billion industry according to Bloomberg, it's no surprise that breeding programs seeking to find the perfect berry are an ongoing activity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has long funded strawberry breeding projects while ag powerhouse U.C. Davis has created many popular varieties including Albion and Chandler -- the latter released in 1983.

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.

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.

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.

No matter what time of year you're buying them, picking the best strawberries at the store is always a challenge. It's all to easy to buy a carton of mush or berries that have no taste at all. But knowing how to pick strawberries at the store is easier than you'd think once you've learned what to watch out for. Here are some tips to help you choose the highest quality strawberries from the store year-round.

Color is a major factor involved in picking strawberries. If there's any whiteness found around the stems, the berries were not picked at peak ripeness. The brighter the color, the sweeter the strawberry. Look for a brilliant red with minimal discoloration to ensure the highest possible level of ripeness.

You may be getting more bang for your buck with larger-sized strawberries, but you might sacrifice flavor. Small berries tend to be juicier and hold much more flavor than larger ones. Bigger berries often contain more water, which dilutes the taste. When you're picking strawberries, less really does mean more.

You probably want the freshest berries you can snag, and examining the leaves on top of the berries, or caps, is one of the best ways to tell how fresh they really are. The caps of each strawberry should be a lively green color. Dead or drying caps indicate that the berries have been sitting in the store for a while.

There's nothing sweeter than locally-purchased farmer's market strawberries. Since these are sourced closer to your area, they don't have to be picked before they're ripe in order to survive the shipping process, as is often the case with supermarket strawberries. The fresh ones can be harvested at peak ripeness, allowing for much more flavor.

Figuring out how to pick strawberries can be a tricky ordeal, but it's honestly just a learning process. You might not always have time to examine each carton, but the more familiar you become with ripe strawberries, the easier it'll be to quickly find them. In the off-season, you can go for strawberry lemonade, a DIY Starbucks pink drink, strawberry pie, or cheesecake-stuffed strawberries in order to satisfy your strawberry cravings until strawberry season returns.

It might not produce the biggest strawberries or provide the richest harvests, but the sweet, aromatic flavour of this old variety is widely considered the best of any strawberry. 'Royal Sovereign' is self-fertile variety, which means you only need one plant for fruits. 59ce067264

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