I can remember a time when you couldn’t find a single strawberry from the start of November until the end of February. If it was a cold wet winter, the gap in strawberry availability would be even wider. Over the years new varieties and growing areas and methods have been introduced that have systematically narrowed the period of time when we don’t have this wonderful fruit. Growing methods have gotten so sophisticated that it is very unusual to be completely without strawberries for more than a few days a year. I think it is because of this that it seems we often miss the peak of the strawberry season.
Another reason is the production peak can be something of a moving target. Strawberries thrive in a pretty narrow weather range — variations as small as 5° can speed up or slow down fruit maturity. As we come into May and June, though, the late spring weather stabilizes and the largest of the three production districts in California (the fields around Watsonville) comes on line. By mid-May the fields are full of flashes of red and the flatbed trucks are crisscrossing the county filled with boxes of fruit right out of the fields destined for the cooling sheds. By late June we will be in peak production. So while we will continue to see strawberries throughout the summer and fall, the absolute best flavor and value of the year is literally just around the corner.
Like tree fruit, there are dozens of varieties of strawberry under commercial production today. And like apples, for example, all strawberry varieties have similar characteristics but can have some very big differences depending on the time of year and specific variety. Many varieties are also closely guarded secrets, proprietary types that can only be produced with the permission of the developer. Unlike apples though, once a strawberry variety is proven viable, it can go into the ground and produce almost immediately. It is important to note that not all varieties are meant to be dark red. There are some very good eating berries that are a lighter, "salmon" color when fully ripe.
The most common commercial strawberry variety is the Albion — this is a firm, mostly red interior, sweet berry that is a consistent sizing, prolific producer and very good shipping berry. Another variety, the San Andreas, is very similar to the Albion and has also seen an increase in production in the last several years. A variety we look forward to this time of year is the San Juan – this strawberry produces very large, wonderfully sweet and juicy specimens that are packed in a special 28-ounce jumbo container for a very limited time in June. My personal favorite is the Chandler, an older variety and somewhat inconsistent in size and productivity, but impossible to beat for flavor. Regardless of the variety the key for really good berries is growing condition — and right now the days are warm, the nights are mild and the sun is up longer every day. This is perfect weather for growing strawberries.
Selecting strawberries at your local store requires special care during the peak season. Fruit tends to be riper and is harvested, packed and transported to market in warmer weather conditions. You should always carefully inspect the strawberry container from all angles – avoid a clamshell that shows visibly damaged, leaky fruit. I generally remove my berries from the container when I get them home but I don’t wash them until right before I eat them because wet fruit tends to decay faster. Most folks don’t have the patience but I also like to serve my strawberries at room temperature as I find it brings out the fragrance and flavor.
I have a few strawberry plants in my garden (Chandler); I don’t get to eat many because they barely get red before my kids are all over them. I do look forward to May and June every year not only since are strawberries at their best but we enjoy a marked increase in the availability of organic fruit. But mostly I live in wonder and joy of a fruit as it hits its stride. I like strawberries in February but I love strawberries in June. As a produce professional I also have an appreciation for the folks who have worked tirelessly over the years to make this fruit more of a staple for everyone. From the producers, buyers and inspectors to the transportation and distribution specialists who bring this fragile fruit to market. Everyone can take some measure of credit for the incredible end product — particularly now as summer is the time for strawberries.
Many thanks to Bob Flood for contributing to this post.