Sunblock: check. Herbal mosquito repellent: check. Water bottle, hat, and sunglasses: check. Berry boxes: check. A car horn toots in the driveway to let me know that my friend has arrived to pick me up. “Bye, sweetie. Mind the house,” I tell Gracie on my way past the chair where is she is napping. She opens one eye, curls into an even tighter ball, and goes back to sleep.
Outside the day is clear and beginning to warm up. There was rain early yesterday, but it’s been dry and breezy since, so the picking conditions couldn’t be better. The strawberries will be plump and sweet from the rain, but their surfaces should be dry and less likely to mildew and rot in the refrigerator when I get them home.
My friend and I chit-chat on the way to the pick-your-own farm where we’ve been going for several years now. It’s a chance for us to catch up, get some gorgeous berries, and linger over breakfast afterward before we head home to begin processing our harvest.
For me, this expedition to pick strawberries marks the beginning of the summer harvest season. Other folks up here in Maine have already foraged for fiddleheads for fresh eating and for preserving, and many have harvested their rhubarb–I have some in the freezer right now, waiting to be combined with these berries in jam–but I think strawberries are probably many people’s first major canning crop of the year.
If the berries last that long! I’ve always thought it was a good thing that these farms don’t weigh their patrons before and after we pick. Usually by the time my friend and I get to breakfast we’re so stuffed all we really want is a cup of tea. “Finger blight,” as farmers call it with a wink, makes off with a remarkable number of ripe berries a year. But since small family-owned farms like these depend upon their fan base of loyal customers who return year after year, often for more than one generation, most expect and some encourage sampling.
Back up a second, though. Is it safe to eat those berries without washing them first? Does the mere fact that they are from a small local farm mean that they are grown any differently than if they were from a huge commercial agrobusiness? No, of course not. Small and local doesn’t necessarily equate to chemical free. On the other hand, most small growers are well aware of the danger of pesticides and herbicides to their soil, their workers (who are often family members), and the customers they serve. If the farm is organic, their marketing will say so, but even if it isn’t, many small farmers choose Integrated Pest Management as their primary method of insect and disease control, spraying the minimum amount of the least toxic product at precisely the right time to attack specific insect or disease threats. If you ask, they’ll tell you what methods they use, and you can judge for yourself whether to buy from them or not. For comparison, in 2013 the USDA found 54 different pesticide residues on strawberry samples from commercial fields in California, which produces 90% of the nation’s strawberries. Of those 54, 9 were known or probable carcinogens, 23 suspected hormone disruptors, 11 neurotoxins, 12 developmental or reproductive toxins, and 19 honeybee toxins.
I’ll pick mine locally, thanks.
When I get the berries home, some get set aside for strawberry shortcake–this is non-negotiable, I must have strawberry shortcake at least once or it isn’t summer–while most are destined for several batches of Gingered Strawberry Rhubarb jam, the first of my pantry-stockers for the year. I use a wonderful product called Pomona’s Universal Pectin, which combines citrus pectin and calcium to set jams and jellies using much lower amounts of sugar or honey than is required with other, better-known products. (My recipe needs only a scant cup of sugar or a half-cup of honey per four cups of crushed fruit, for instance, as opposed to the five to seven cups of sugar required for the pectins widely available in the supermarkets.)
The sparkle of fresh ginger and the tartness of rhubarb are a nice counterpoint to the natural sweetness of the strawberries in this recipe. I use two cups of crushed strawberries, two cups of chopped rhubarb, one tablespoon of grated ginger root, four tablespoons of lemon juice, a scant cup of sugar, two teaspoons of pectin powder, and two teaspoons of calcium water, using a standard water-bath canning method. The yield is four eight-ounce jars. Spread this on an English muffin on a February morning and you’ll be warm and happy from your toes to your nose.
I just went to double-check the amounts on that recipe, and, oh, Houston, I think we have a problem because look what I found: Strawberry Margarita Preserves. Six cups halved strawberries, two cups chopped tart apples, a quarter cup of lemon juice, four cups sugar, a half cup of tequila, a half cup of orange-flavored liqueur, and two tablespoons of strawberry schnapps (optional). Makes six jars of jam and also is a great topping for cheesecake, the recipe says. It strikes me that this would be a pretty damned good topping on nearly anything from a cream scone to an asphalt shingle. Heck, you could probably eat it straight out of the jar in a pinch.
I think I may have to clear some extra space on my pantry shelves…