Sunday, March 23, 2008

Strawberry Fields

One of the signs of spring in California is the onset of beautiful, plump varietal strawberries at the local farmers' markets. Like bananas, there are hundreds of varieties of strawberries, but only one variety is widely available to American consumers: chandlers. They are big and fine tasting, but like most agribusiness products, they were bred more for durability than flavor.

Thankfully, with the onset of farmers' markets, we now have access to strawberries that make those old chandlers taste like cardboard. Strawberries that burst with flavor, sweetness and juice. Strawberries that you will gobble up by the basket because they are so good and that will forever ruin supermarket berries for you.

My farmers' market of choice is the big Hollywood Farmers' Market, every Sunday morning on Ivar Street between Sunset and Hollywood Boulevard. In the spring, the market has berries galore, but there are two purveyors who specialize in varietal strawberries: Harry's Berries, which is usually on the east side of Ivar in the north half of the market, and a second stand with no signage, which is across Ivar and usually a bit north of Harry's. Harrry's carries gaviotas and seascapes, and has just returned to the market, but be warned, they sometimes sell out early in the day. The other stand carries a greater variety but not necessarily all of them on any given day. They sometimes have gaviotas and seascapes, but also have 269s and camarosas. Below is a listing and description of some of these treats.

Gaviotas: Gaviotas are my favorite of all the strawberries. A ripe gaviota at the height of the season is one of the single greatest gastronomic experiences there is. Gaviotas are very sweet, heavy on the juice and have a great fruity taste with not much in the way of acid. They are about as close as fresh fruit gets to tasting like candy. Harry's Berries stocks them for $15 for a three-pack, and they are worth every penny. Harry's excels at gaviotas and when they have them, I always get a three-basket pack.

Seascapes: Seascapes are gaviotas' more sophisticated sibling. They are less sweet, more acidic, very juicy and in someways have more of a traditional strawberry taste. Their season is shorter and their yield is smaller than the gaviotas, so they can be a bit harder to find. There are good Seascapes at Harry's and the stand across the street.

Camarosas: Camarosas have a thicker skin than gaviotas and seascapes and tend to be available earlier in the season. They are a good teaser for what is to come, but not one I would spend much time on once the gavs and seascapes come in.

269s: This is a cross between a seascape and a common chandler. It has a bit more durability a la the chandler but has some of that seascape flavor and juice.

Buying and Storage Tips:

Bigger is not always better. I find that smaller berries are sometimes juicier.

Be cautious with your berries. They bruise very easily.

I store my berries on a counter out of direct sunlight and never in the refrigerator. As I noted before, farmers market varietal berries are not bred for durability. They last one to two days buy as many as you will eat within that time, and then wait until next week (or the next market you can get to).

As I mentioned above, you need to take caution. If you begin to eat these berries, you will never be satisfied with supermarket berries again. You will look askance at the strawberries served at restaurants to garnish your chocolate cake or omelet. Every time you eat a regular, old strawberry you will pause, sigh, and know that it is but a pale imitation of what a strawberry should taste like.

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