By Barbara Kobsar, Illustrations by Wendy Yoshimura
Once the signs go up at the farmers markets, I’m on high alert, since some of our local berries appear for only a few short weeks.
California accounts for an astounding threequarters of our national strawberry production, and this popular berry now seems to be around all spring and summer, as farmers find ways to extend the season.
A relatively new variety of strawberry showing up at market stands is the Albion. Such growers as Medina Farms out of Watsonville and Ruiz Farms from Santa Maria like this berry for its dark red color (inside and out), dependably sweet flavor, and consistent production through a long growing season. Seascapes and Camarosas are the strawberries of choice for commercial growers who seek good shipping and storage qualities along with good flavor and color.
A little harder sell are the Diamantes, since they sport only a light color when ripe, which seems out of character to some strawberry shoppers. Diamantes are definitely worth a try and tend to hold up a little longer in the refrigerator, too.
Despite their sometimes small size, Chandler strawberries have a big, old-fashioned, rich berry flavor. The flavor of any variety is determined by growing conditions, stage of ripeness, and time of harvest; size does not enter the equation.
Strawberries come with their caps attached, in order to extend shelf life. Since the berries crush easily under their own weight, it’s best to store them in a single layer between paper towels in a moisture-proof container with a lid. When stored properly, freshly picked strawberries keep well for up to a week; in other words, until just before you’re ready to go back to the farmers market for more.
Water breaks down strawberries quickly—as does the rain—so just before eating, wash quickly and gently in cool water, then drain and remove the caps.
Blackberries and raspberries are known as bramble fruit because they grow on thorny bushes, or brambles. These two types of berries are similar in structure: plump, juicy “kernels” make up the shape. Blackberries remain fairly firm after harvest, while raspberries slip off their cores to become hollow and very fragile. Raspberries and blackberries are picked ripe, so what you see is what you get.
Raspberries are found in a wide variety of colors, from ruby red to salmon-colored, black, and even white. True blackberries are shiny, purple-black in color. When mature they range from ½ to 1 inch in length. In addition to blackberries, you may be lucky enough to find some of the following blackberry crosses at market:
- Loganberry: Developed in the late 1880s by Judge John H. Logan of Santa Cruz, the loganberry is a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry.
- Dewberry: Small and tart. The plant trails along the ground.
- Olallieberry: This big, juicy-rich berry was developed by the USDA at Oregon State University in 1949 by crossing a loganberry with a large youngberry (a blackberry/ dewberry cross rarely found in the U.S.). Its name is reported to have been drawn from the Chinook jargon.
- Boysenberry: A farmer named Rudolph Boysen developed this berry in the 1920s. There is little agreement on which bramble berry varieties might have gone into breeding this large, deep reddishpurple berry with its large seeds, but most descriptions mention blackberry, raspberry, and loganberry. Blackberries are not good keepers, so refrigerate them as soon as possible after purchase.
Line a pan with paper towels and place a single layer of berries in it, cover that with another layer of towel and refrigerate for a day or two. Like strawberries, blackberries need a quick rinse in cool water to remove field dust. Remember that berries freeze well, so don’t pass them up when they are overflowing on the market stands. Spread washed and drained berries on a tray and freeze them individually before placing in freezer bags in the freezer, where they keep for six to eight months. Texture is compromised in frozen berries, but the flavor is locked in, and they’ll be delicious baked into pies, fruit crisps, or scones; simmered into sauces; or mixed into cake fillings and yogurt.
Pease Ranch in nearby Brentwood is my once-a-year stop for blackberries, olallieberries, boysenberries, and loganberries. U-pick days in early May to late June find me in long sleeves, brimmed hat, and gloves. Picking berries is fun but tedious, so most U-pick farms also offer picked berries ready to go. Check out their website for harvest reports, directions, and recipes. www.peaseranch.com
July is National Blueberry Month. I’m getting more particular about blueberries, so am happy when the farmers from Rainbow Orchard on Apple Hill (in the Sierra Nevada foothills) bring several to choose from during the season. Blueberries thrive at the orchard’s 3,000-foot elevation.
The first blueberries that show up in June tempt my palate because I’ve been waiting all winter for them, but July brings out the best. Chandlers are nice and big, Liberty blueberries are very flavorful, and the Duke blueberries are firm and stand up exceptionally well in salads and baked goods. They’re all good choices, but asking for a sample at the market might help you seal the deal.
Freshly picked blueberries are dusty looking. This dusty “bloom” is a natural protection from direct sun and remains on the berry for about a week after harvest.
Enjoy and see you at the market! •
Do I Smell a Pie Baking?
Farmers’ Market Desserts
What a crazy spring we’ve had. Wondering what the weather means for stone fruit, I call my friend Welling Tom, a farmer at Brookside Farm in Brentwood, to inquire about how his crops are looking. “The good news,” he says, “is that there was enough cold weather this winter to give the trees a rest. The not-so-good news is that there was so much rain right while the early apricots, pluots, and peaches were flowering that the bees couldn’t do a good job of pollination. The later varieties look good, though.”
Every year has its challenges for farmers, yet we still can get an amazing array of fruits at the farmers markets all year round. But here is a new cookbook that promotes the dessert potential at the markets with a flexibility that recognizes the challenges of the weather. The recipes in Farmers’ Market Desserts, by Oakland author Jennie Schacht (with artful photographs by Leo Gong), celebrate each season’s bounty, from the stone fruits and berries of summer to the autumn harvest of apples, pears, figs, and persimmons, and on to winter’s citrus. Vegetables, honey, dried fruits, nuts, and herbs make their appearances as well. Each recipe includes “Season to Taste” notes that suggest substitutions if the fruits called for aren’t available when you’re making the dessert.
The recipes are mostly very straightforward, relying on high-quality ingredients more than fancy techniques. All challenging bits are well explained. It gives me a new view on buying fruit—anything that looks good I can bring home and there will be a recipe in this book that will make the most of it. It must be my imagination, but as I write this, my house smells like there’s a fruit pie baking!
Brookside Farm sells at the Montclair Farmers Market in Oakland on Sundays. They will also be at the Walnut Creek Shadelands Market once their fruit trees start producing. You can find Farmers’ Markets Desserts at Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore on College or other local bookstores.
Barbara Kobsar is a home economist and 20-year veteran journalist who promotes the enjoyment of in-season produce. She has also authored two cookbooks focusing on traditional home-cooked meals using local produce. She spends part of every week at the East Bay farmers markets scoping out fresh produce. When not roaming the produce aisles she is behind her market stand selling Cottage Kitchen jams and pepper jellies she makes from produce from the farmers markets. Contact her at email@example.com.