First of the season at Story Farms in Catskill, NYIt’s strawberry season!  For these few summer weeks you can find local, vine-ripened strawberries fresh off the farm. Red, sweet, and fragile, they are notably different – and sublimely better – than the berries available in the store the other 48 weeks of the year.

After a slow start to the season, local farmers are enjoying a bumper crop.  Pick your own, or pick up a basket at the farmer’s market – either way, indulge while they last! Fresh picked, they are ripe, red all the way through, deliciously sweet-tart, and never better.  Field-ripened strawberries will only keep for a few days. The good news is: they’ll probably all be eaten before they spoil.

Gazy Bros berries at the Rainbow Plaza

Gazy Bros berries at the Rainbow Plaza

Just about any farmer’s market will have some local berries.  Gazy Brothers Farm in Oxford will have strawberries for the next few weeks.  You can find them on Main Ave. at the Rainbow Plaza and the Wilton market (both on Wednesday) or the New Canaan Market on Saturday.  Jonathan and Charlotte from Sweet Acre Farm in Lebanon will have fresh picked organic berries at the Saturday Black Rock Market in Bridgeport.

If your knees and back are better than mine, pick-your-own is a great way to take advantage of the brief bounty of strawberries. Jones Farm in Shelton has always been our traditional place to harvest.  The ride out to the fields on the Very Merry Berry Ferry kicks off a great experience. Call 203-929-8425 for Farmer Jones’ daily update on picking conditions.  

Says it all!For the best picking experience, take along a small child.  They have no embarrassment about eating their own weight in berries right in the rows. (Farmer Jones doesn’t seem to mind.)  If there aren’t red stains down their front by the end of the picking, they’re doing it wrong.  The delight of the kids adds zest to the experience.

We always bring home more of the irresistible berries than we can possibly eat.  The excess can be used to make jam, but this requires some advance organizing to have a supply of jars and lids along with pectin and sugar ready to go. The best plan is to pick in the morning and make the jam after lunch.  It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it when you proudly admire the gleaming jars of bright red preserves.  You’ll be glad to have them over the winter.  They’re welcome Christmas gifts – if they last that long.

I like to keep a basket of the fresh berries on the middle shelf of the frig for easy access. I can snatch out a few and eat them over the sink, biting the berry off from the stem, whenever I’m thirsty or peckish.  Supermarket strawberries are fine for breakfast year round, but the intense flavor of the local fruit gives a better start to the day. Like any good, ripe fruit, they have the refreshing contrast of sweet and tart.  

Strawberry shortcake fixinsStrawberry shortcake may be the best expression of the berry’s potential: sliced berries, lightly crushed and macerated with a little sugar, then ladled over thirsty biscuits and topped with whipped cream.  Yum!  

Shortcakes from the Yellow Table Cookbook.There’s a lot of latitude on the nature of the shortcake – ranging from a slightly sweetened biscuit to a crisp almost-cookie pastry.  Our daughter, Charlotte, recently made some light, crisp shortcakes from the The Yellow Table Cookbook.  I’ve always favored the sweet biscuit style like Rosa Mae’s Southern variety.  My Uncle, who lived in a more decadent age, used to spread butter on his shortcakes before spooning on the fruit. Ah, the good old days!

Strawberries and cream, a British tradition that translates well to the USA, is most famously consumed at the Wimbledon tennis tournament.  A supermarket chain commissioned a study that determined a ratio of 70% berries to 30% cream was optimal. They care about these things in England.

Strawberries are also delicious when dipped in sour cream or plain yogurt and then brown sugar. I emphasize that very little enhancement is needed for a local, field-ripened, fresh-picked berry, but some variety through the season adds enjoyment.

Field-ripened strawberries have an intoxicating and unmistakable fragrance.  A bowlful out on the counter can perfume the room with the scent of summer, but I warn you: you’ll be tempted to pop one in every time you pass by.

We’re spoiled by access to almost all fruits on a year-round basis, flown or trucked in from across the country and around the world, but strawberries from nearby tell us loud and clear how much better the local fruit can be.  Enjoy it while it lasts!

Strawberry shortcake