by John Ryan
One of the things that bothers me about life these days is how simple stuff—the stuff Martha Stewart calls "good things"—how much those good things cost.
Take bread for instance, you can find lots of bread under a buck, but if you want a really good loaf of bread, you can easily spend three fifty or four dollars. And we're still talking flour, water, and yeast.
While I was visiting my mother-in-law in California a couple years ago, one of her friends stopped by with a couple baskets of something called Alpine strawberries. She had picked them up at a farm stand on her way over. Now, strawberries from a farmer's market are practically the definition of good things, but those particular berries were probably the least appetizing examples I'd ever seen. The puny, misshapen berries looked like something I would grow. But to be polite I tasted one and if ever there was an example of "you can't judge a berry by its cover" this was it. The ugly runt of a berry was incredibly juicy and, I swear, besides exploding with lush strawberry flavor, it also tasted like ripe pineapple. I must have gobbled down half a basket before my manners returned and I offered them around.
I was leaving the next day and planned to take the other basket back to Chicago with me, but by morning it was clear that I was faced with an eat 'em or lose 'em situation. So I rose to the occasion.
Those Alpine strawberries were the fabled fraises du bois, strawberries of the woods, aka: wild strawberries. They had been collected, bought, brought and offered within a few hours. The problem with good things, of course, is that you want more. So naturally, as soon as I got back to Chicago I started looking for them.
And as a food writer, I felt that it was my duty to track them down. Ironically, one place I found that grew wild strawberries was at a research facility in California where new varieties of strawberries are developed. But I discovered that these wild berries are not grown to eat, nor are they grown for someone's private pleasure. The wild strawberry plants are used as an agricultural canary. They are a virus indicator. Because the plants are so vulnerable, researchers can tell exactly when a virus attacks a field. And by extension, researchers can tell if their new varieties are resistant to that virus.
From talking to local farmers I found that wild strawberries have two fatal problems. First, they are so fragile they can barely make the trip to nearby markets, let alone across country. And second, they are tiny and rather ugly and the buying public has this thing about bigger being better.
Consequently, farmers who ship berries all over the country tend to (surprise!) grow large, disease resistant varieties that ship well and have shelf life. Local farmers have to worry about disease too, but their market is closer, so they can grow varieties that are juicier and tastier. And if the demand is strong enough (either from chefs or regular customers at farmer's markets), farmers will take on wild strawberries.
So let's start asking for them. It may take a few seasons to give farmers the confidence to plant them, but if we all keep asking, we'll start seeing them. In the meantime strawberry season is just around the corner and there are some wonderful varieties out there. Don't expect supermarkets to bring in good berries. Supermarkets value consistency and shelf life over taste, so even when strawberry season is at its peak, supermarket chains will bring in berries from California of Florida. So it's time to find farmer's markets, you-pick-'em places, and roadside stands. You may not find wild strawberries, but the berries you do find will still be the best and the cheapest. And that's a very good thing.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created June 2000