The Telegram (St. John's)
Berry time draws near
Local strawberries are expected earlier than usual this year
For many Atlantic Canadians, nothing says summer like the first taste of strawberries.
Whether it is eating a freshly-picked strawberry right from a U-pick field or diving into a strawberry shortcake at a community supper — where that other summer staple lobster often serves as the main course — it is a treat that makes the long winters we endure in this region a distant memory.
Matthew Compton operates Compton’s Very Berry Patch in Summerside, and he notes P.E.I. berries traditionally come on the market a few weeks after their Nova Scotia counterparts.
Warm weather back in April had him thinking about the possibility of an early crop but he has been farming long enough to know the weather can change quickly.
“When the cold weather came in May, the plants went back into dormancy,” he said in early June. “However, things look good right now.”
If that trend continues, he was expecting the first berries to be coming out of his fields before the end of the month — a week earlier than last year. He notes Island berries traditionally hit the market around Canada Day.
Compton said about 30 per cent of his business (the operation has approximately 20 acres) is U-pick. Last year, they started allowing customers to pre-order strawberry flats and the idea has proven popular.
Berries are also looking good in Nova Scotia. Curtis Millen and his family have been growing strawberries in the Great Village area of Nova Scotia for close to four decades. Their operation includes over 150 acres of strawberries and more than 600 acres of blueberries.
Like his P.E.I. counterpart, Millen is expecting the majority of his crop to be ready for harvest about a week sooner than last year.
While it depends on the varieties, he added “there will be plenty of berries on the market by the last week of June for sure, and maybe even before.”
While a “normal” growing season is getting harder and harder to define in an era of climate change, Millen said in mid-june, everything was progressing “so far, so good.”
The company decided to phase out its U-pick operation last year due to COVID-19 and all of their production is now shipped to retail stores for direct sale to the consumer.
PRESERVING YOUR BERRIES
As to how to handle the berries once you get them home, Compton notes many people make the mistake of putting them in the fridge right away. That is especially a bad move if they are picked on a hot day, saying the berries should sit uncovered in a cool area of the house to “allow the heat to come out of them.”
If the end goal is to make jam, Compton recommends acting quickly.
“If you make your jam while the berries are still fresh, it will taste better and last longer,” he says.
As for how long berries will last when you bring them home, he says, that depends on the variety.
When buying berries from a retail location, Millen recommends refrigeration as soon as possible. He noted virtually all of his berries are sent to the buyers the same day they are picked to keep them as fresh as possible.
“The better the berries are picked, the longer they will last,” he adds.
Good picking means gently twisting them off the stem, taking care not to squeeze the strawberries too tightly into a container and not picking berries that are not quite ripe.
If freezing the berries for a taste of summer during the long Atlantic winters is your goal, there are plenty of options.
If the berries can’t be consumed right away, the staff at Lester’s Farm Market recommend freezing them. Susan Lester says the best way is to lay them out on a cookie sheet first to ensure any heat from the fields has a chance to dissipate and then bagging them up.
“That way, you can have a taste of summer all year long,” she said.
According to the website strawberry plants.org, berries can be frozen as a puree, crushed, sliced, or whole. The site notes it takes approximately 2/3 of a quart of freshly picked strawberries to yield one pint of frozen strawberries. It recommends mashing or slicing large berries before freezing.
As for the best way to eat the berries, that seems to come down to personal preference. While Compton admits to liking strawberries “pretty much any way”, his favourite is strawberry jam.
“Any time you open up a jar, it just takes you back to the heart of summer,” he says.
For Millen, his favourite berries are picked in the morning before the heat of the day. No recipe required — just any early morning snack. While he concedes it is a matter of personal preference, “to me, you can’t beat a fresh berry just picked off the field.
Looking for a new way to prepare berries? Well-known P.E.I. and Food Network chef Michael Smith terms Strawberry Arugula Salad as “one of my all-time favourite flavour combinations: peppery, nutty arugula leaves tossed with sweet, fragrant strawberries, mellow balsamic and sweet pine nuts. Together these ingredients are far more than the sum of their parts.”
The recipe is available on his website, chefmichaelsmith. com