Sayonara, strawberries…

The date was May 5 2009, and despite days and days and days of cloud cover interspersed with rain, strawberry season had come to Central Virginia.  A few days before, a friend in-the-know (Daniel Perry, of Jam According to Daniel) had his buddy ‘jump the season’ by picking berries in North Carolina and then dropping them off in Charlottesville so that he could begin jam production for the year.  By burning up the ‘U-Pick’ phone lines, working websites, and lots of personal inquiries he had discovered that ripe red strawberries could be picked at any number of local operations – if you didn’t mind wet weather and wet berries.

For our first foray, we selected Seaman’s Orchard (a division of Flippin-Seaman Orchards) in Nelson County, just down the road from Appalachia Star Farm and Saunders Brothers (which Daniel informed me is a great place to pick up peaches in the summertime – terrific quality, best prices, nice knowledge of fruit varieties and an attempt to forecast harvest dates).  We also passed a mythical spot known to me as ‘the Secret Thai Restaurant in Nelson’ but also known as Thai Siam – it was only 9 AM as we passed it on the way, but already we knew where we’d be getting lunch!  Daniel is great company (I recommend fruit picking with him if you ever have the chance) and we talked about food access, farming practices, favorite strawberry incarnations, and his jam-plans for the upcoming season.

When we arrived at Seaman’s there was just one woman already picking berries; during our stay, perhaps ten other folks came and went, for the most part just harvesting a pint or two and then leaving.  In contrast, we picked about 70 pounds (Daniel brought 40 pounds to the jam kitchen, then helped me with my 30 pounds).  That amounts to about 5 heaped ‘flat’ boxes, which maxed out the space in my little station wagon.  Piling strawberries more than a few inches high tends to squish the fruit, especially if it is ripe and watery, as were these – thus the wisdom of the pint-pack that is industry standard.  I had also made arrangements with Seaman’s to purchase picked berries for an event later that week catered by Harvest Moon Catering.  Volunteering to source local berries for Harvest Moon served my purposes as well as I was scheduled to speak on the topic ‘Keeping your Kitchen Green’ at the University of Virginia Women’s Club Spring Meeting later in the week; I figured that having a local strawberry shortcake on their plates as I spoke would sweeten and strengthen my message.  And it did.

Picking strawberries is easy, provided you don’t mind squatting.  Typically the rows are built up to a height of about 18 inches, then the row is covered with black plastic to warm the soil early in the spring, to discourage pests while the green plants are growing, and to further protect the hanging berries as they mature by keeping them off the ground and away from the slugs and ants.  One thing to know about strawberry picking – it will always appear that there are more berries in the next row over, but really the berries right around your flailing fingers are obscured from sight by their arching green leaf ‘umbrellas’.  These leaves also protect the berries from the sun as the season progresses, and probably protect from hungry birds as well.  As we learned that overcast, rainy day, strawberries ripen according to temperature rather than exposure to sunlight – it seemed as though they were ripening before our eyes.

Once the tab was paid and the car loaded, we headed down the curving road at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains and traded stories about Nelson County (moonshine, marijuana, VDACS stings, Appalachian Trail, etc.) and made for Thai Siam.  Their theme of contact-paper counters, open kitchen, mostly to-go food and a large, community table was at first slightly strange (especially in such a rural context) but the presence of a cheerful lunch crowd drinking hot tea and socializing affirmed that the restaurant is an important part of the community.  While we were encouraged to take our food to go, we ended up sitting outside at a picnic table and digging the deliciousness – I had a tofu, mushroom and coconut milk soup spiked with lemongrass, citrus and a bit of spiciness; Daniel had some noodle concoction that seemed to get yummier with each bite.  We each took a menu, hoping to pass that way again soon.

Our second strawberry foray was about a month later, also on a rainy, overcast day.  This time we went to Critzer’s, just off of 151 and close to Blue Mountain Brewery, a.m. fog, Veritas… While they didn’t have their sign out, and honestly seemed surprised that we were there to pick berries, Daniel, John and I donned our rain gear and got right out there.  The berries this time around were noticeably larger, but more watery because of the wet, wet month of May; I do think their flavor was a bit more developed by being ‘later season’ berries, which fit right into my plan for dehydrating some of them.  Perhaps I would even venture a dessert?!?  The water stood a few inches deep between the heaped, black plastic rows so we made quick work of our task, again picking upwards of 60 pounds and purchasing some berries that had already been picked the day before for my catering friends.  Daniel’s fame among the U-Pick community is growing, and now most folks recognize him and give him the ‘industry’ scuttlebutt – but no access to a bathroom.

Fast forward a few weeks, when I meet Daniel in the jam kitchen at his parents’ home and prepared to lend my labor to the Jam Cause.  He and his buddy John have been hard at work before I arrive, washing raspberries and macerating them with sugar prior to cooking them down.  Daniel suggests that I cut strawberries, ‘the last of the strawberries’ he says, which are small but very juicy and perhaps the best ones I have tasted yet.  He takes care of making the jam in a handled copper pot – really he is just cooking the fruit down and will make the jam later, but finds that if the cooked fruit sits at room temperature it builds flavor and consistency that makes better jam.  We tour the garden, we sample my first attempt at homemade yogurt mixed with cherry jam, cashews, and granola (Greek breakfast, I call it, and have two portions), we put stickers on jam jars, we talk more about food and access and City Market happenings.  I snip strawberries and drop them into a rectangular Cambro container; the table in front of me is covered with a protective layer of plastic, and piled high with other lidded Cambros that hold macerating raspberries.  Daniel has hoarded some strawberries in a large freezer that he will intermingle with other fruits throughout the year – peach + strawberry is a winner, he says, and I imagine other future flavors as the juice coats my palm and drips up my wrist and onto my apron.  I snip the berry tops into a compost box that is loaded with lemon peels, and the strawberry/lemon combination is so intense it seems that I can see the aroma all around us.  When I am ‘hired’ to sell jam at the Meade Market, I am able to tell the good folks about jam production – finding, picking and transporting fruit, cleaning and processing it, mixing flavors, getting it into labeled jars and to market – so I don’t feel like a poseur; mostly I just accept compliments on his behalf, and encourage people to visit the Saturday City Market so that they can experience Jam Daniel in person.

Sayonara strawberries…you’ll live on in jam and in dehydrated form in my cupboard, waiting for winter’s oatmeal to plump you back up.  But HELLO raspberries, cherries, blueberries, peaches, blackberries, plums, apples and persimmons…hope I can help rope you and bring you in to the table.


~ by a local notion on June 29, 2009.

One Response to “Sayonara, strawberries…”

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