It's that most wonderful time of the year. No, not Christmas in June — it's strawberry season! And the B.C. berries are rollin' in fast and furious, thanks largely to this strangely hot spring that's brought us the driest May on record since record-keeping began and summer-like conditions in much of the province that are three weeks — or more — ahead of schedule.
Whether you like to get out and pick your own — one of the most beautiful and rewarding experiences you can treat yourself to these early summer days — or you'd rather hunt for our B.C. strawberries at your favourite farmers' market or grocery store, the red gems have arrived, and with the new varieties being bred especially for B.C. conditions, you'll do far better than strawberries picked thousands of kilometres away when they're greener and can better survive the long journey north.
Besides, going local during strawberry season relieves some of the water pressure on our drought-plagued neighbours in the traditional U.S. strawberry-growing areas of California and Washington and encourages a more robust local supply in the future. (Don't even talk to me about the folks who insist on buying those red cardboard things masquerading as strawberries out of season in winter that have to be shipped all the way from the Southern Hemisphere. Meh.)
Luckily for folks in Sea to Sky country, Pemberton Valley strawberry growers are rolling out the berries right on cue along with the farms in the Fraser Valley.
North Arm Farm's Trish Sturdy says it's strawberry fields forever there starting this Friday. They'll have fresh rhubarb, too, which means a delicious strawberry rhubarb crisp can't be far away.
All their June-bearing varieties — Ranier, Bentons, Honeoye (great for freezing), Puget Reliance and more — are yours for the picking at $2.50 a pound (don't forget to bring your own containers), or ready-picked at $4.49 a pound, all certified organic and "red to the core".
Now this might surprise you, but you may want to take a tip from chefs in Whistler and Vancouver and pop a few green ones into your container.
"That's exactly why we're not open during (this) week is we have to take a few hundred pounds of green ones off because the chefs are ordering them by the hundred pounds right now," Trish says.
"They couldn't care less about the red ones, they want the green ones!"
The green berries, which are "super, super tart but still have that strawberry flavour" according to Trish, will soon be transformed into things like green strawberry salsa or green strawberry pickles at a restaurant near you.
Meanwhile, if your mouth is watering for those sweet Benton strawberries that the MacEwan farm was famous for for 20 years, head on up to Camel's Back Harvest. Carrie Charron (née Kuurne), who runs the farm with her husband, Remi, says they will be doing mostly u-pick this year at $2 a pound, starting about mid-June. (Watch Pique for their ad, or check their Facebook page for exact dates.)
"For a lot of people in Pemberton, Bentons are the preferred strawberry. They aren't just a really sweet berry — they have a really nice strawberry flavour, too," says Carrie.
She also likes the Nisga'a strawberries they have — a lovely dark red berry, again with very good flavour, and one of the last June-bearing varieties that was developed for B.C. through the plant-breeding program at the University of the Fraser Valley.
"They've been doing a lot with the day-neutrals, but the June berries are kind of getting lost because people want to have strawberries all season long," says Carrie.
Indeed we do. But consider this, my strawberry-loving friends and neighbours. Those lovely, day-neutral strawberry varieties, such as the popular Albion that feed our strawberry addictions for a longer period of time, have one major drawback.
Day-neutral varieties, which constitute the lion's share of strawberries now grown in B.C., always have a few berries on the plants in addition to producing two or three big crops in waves throughout the season, possibly until October or November, whenever the first frost is.
"So they have a way higher concentration of pest problems," says Carrie. For conventional farmers that means "if you are producing all season long, you have to be spraying all season long, too, because there are just so many pests out there that will destroy those crops if you aren't spraying them." This results in way more pesticide use throughout the season.
"So if you do early June-bearing varieties you don't have to worry so much about that," she adds.
"A June-bearing (plant), even if it's from a conventional grower, has not been sprayed nearly as much."
Just one more reason to get out there and get your fill of these early June beauties.
You can use some of your bounty in this amazing retro recipe my mom's been making for ages. It's a perfect strawberries-and-cream combo with a nice twist.
Given it's frozen, you can make it before company comes and, if there's any left after they leave, chip away at it for awhile on these early hot days.
FROSTY STRAWBERRY SQUARES
Better Homes & Gardens June 1964
1 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. chopped walnuts
1/2 c. melted butter
2 egg whites
1/3 c. sugar
2 c. sliced strawberries
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1 c. whipping cream — whipped
Stir together the first four ingredients. Spread evenly in a shallow baking pan. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. When done (golden brown) sprinkle the crumbs evenly in a 9 x 13-inch pan and pat them down a bit.
Combine egg whites, sugar, berries and lemon juice in a large bowl. Beat, best with an electric beater, at high speed to form stiff peaks (about 10 min.). Gently fold in the whipping cream you have already whipped, taking care not to collapse your egg white and berry mixture. Spoon mixture over the crumbs in the pan. If you have crumbs left over, sprinkle some evenly on top, for looks. Freeze six hours or overnight. Cut into squares to serve. Trim with fresh whole strawberries or, if you want to be really decadent, add a chocolate sauce. For a quick, easy one, melt chocolate chips in the microwave 30 seconds on high, stirring in a little milk or cream for the right consistency.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who used to love picking tiny wild strawberries when she was a kid.