The buzz from the official arrival of spring this week was summarily squashed when a sage marketgoer clucked her teeth at a friend and said, "Please, I've been eating spring for two weeks. Have you seen Zimmerman's asparagus?"
She had a point. Seasonal eating around here has a slightly different vibe than in, say, Seattle. The deserts provide early corn. The coast provides year-round brassicas and blueberries. There are the big trumpets of each season, of course -- cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, pomegranates -- but it's easy to get a little squinty when you see strawberries in January.
They're legit. But spring strawberries are effortless and sublime. The plants haven't been coddled into production or have had to fight off too many frosts or heavy rains, season permitting. All energy is free to be pumped into its singular purpose -- reproduction via bright red, jewel-like berries.
Harry's Berries, an Oxnard berry mainstay since 1967, returned to the Hollywood market a couple of weeks ago. (They're also at Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Santa Monica, Thousand Oaks, Torrance, Venice and West Hollywood.) The big beast of the strawberry world is the Albion -- large, uniformly pointed and thick -- but you won't find it at their stand. No knock against the Albion; it's a great berry that produces nearly all year long. But take home a basket of zingy Seascapes or tender Chandlers -- only around when spring hits -- and you'll plotz. Each has a different flavor profile, but you'll say that both taste like a strawberry should.
First rule of strawberry club: Before you purchase any berries, ask for a taste. Strawberry season is long here, but the berries' flavor shifts with a mess of variables -- rain, variety, how long the plant has been producing and if it's spent or hitting a second wind, heat, soil quality, and when it was picked. Strawberries don't ripen any further once harvested, so what you buy is what you get. Consistency is elusive, even with some of the most conscientious of growers -- Harry's Berries and McGrath are two great ones.
You want an all-red berry with no white shoulders if possible, though if a spring rain hits, growers often will pick what they can even if it's not as ripe as they'd like. Resting water ruins strawberries, turning them into waterlogged mush -- this is why you don't wash your strawberries until you are ready to eat them. Better to sell some not as ripe than none at all.
Another indicator of the sublime is smell; great berries have a luscious, almost jammy scent. Some varieties of berries don't throw much aroma at all -- the Albion comes to mind -- which is why taste tests are important. But fully ripe, smaller heirloom varieties can attract buyers from three stalls away on a sunny market day.
And speaking of varieties, here are a few strawberry profiles of some of our favorites.
Seascape: A UC Davis cultivar, the Seascape is a widely grown commercial variety like the Albion. It's on the large side, deeply red, fleshy and honey-sweet when fully ripe. It's also a great jam strawberry, as it holds together well under the punishing heat of the jamming process, producing a thick and toothy preserve. It's great fresh, too.
Chandler: Tender and, when fully ripe, juicy and bright red, the Chandler is the berry that conjures nostalgic memories of roadside berry stands and grandma's shortcake. A well-balanced fruit with nice acidity and sweetness, the Chandler is the choice berry for fresh eating. Not the greatest for jam, as it practically disintegrates in the heat. But do grab a basket for a warm spring morning breakfast in the park.
Gaviota: A firm, sweet and large berry that's great fresh and transcendent when jammed. Very popular among growers because it produces a mess of fruit and still manages to push out great quality berries, especially later into the season. It handles unpredictable variables like disease and rain much better than some more vulnerable varieties. It arrives a little later in the season, usually when the Chandlers hit a planting pause at the end of spring.
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The prime season is really just beginning and will hit its peak in May, which means months of taste tests and self-education on your strawberry of preference. Also, the annual Strawberry Festival in Oxnard is happening at the strawberry meadows of College Park on May 18-19. There's also the much-celebrated Berry Blast Off recipe competition. Entries are due April 30. Contest rules are here.
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