“Those berries,” said a neighbor enjoying the bounty of this column’s picking, “they taste like strawberries!”
One of the joys of living in these parts is easy access to places to pick your own strawberries.
Hunsader Farms on County Road 675, in Bradenton, has been in the U-pick business for 35 to 40 years, according to family spokesperson David Hunsader. Berries here grow the old-fashioned way — in the ground. The variety grown exclusively for U-pick is camarosa, selected for its taste and sweetness. The season is December through March and “maybe April,” Hunsader says. He adds that the berries taste best in December and January, when cooler weather results in increased sugar production, as it does with citrus. On the other hand, warmer weather produces more berries, and right now they are so abundant that the farm is offering a “BOGO” — buy a pound, get one free — through at least March 13.
Is it worth it to bend down to pick berries from those low-to-the-ground plants? Hunsader points out that soil influences the taste of whatever is growing in it. Think of the endless and exotic discussions of the impact of soil on the flavor of wine grapes. In taste tests of berries picked on the same day at virtually the same time, the difference was clear and unarguable. The taste of the soil-grown fruit was richer and more intense compared to berries grown hydroponically.
Compare a hydroponic U-pick berry to virtually anything from the supermarket, however, and the U-pick is superior. There are many reasons. Varieties grown for conventional distribution are bred to withstand shipment. They are picked early and often rock-hard, again in the interest of surviving the journey to point-of-sale. A pick-your-own situation is an improvement, and the new O’Brien Family Farms, also in Bradenton, is a major one.
Strawberries (and several other crops) grow here in a Verti-Gro system of pots stacked six high on vertical columns and fed via an overhead system of pipes and tubes that provides a continuous supply of water and fertilizer. There is a slightly space-age feel to all of this, but the strawberry fragrance is remarkably old-fashioned and down to earth. Raul Vasquez runs O’Brien’s hydroponic farm. It just opened this season and is presently growing several different strawberry cultivars precisely to see which ones do best. Being able to pick standing up is a huge advantage for anyone whose back isn’t as young as it used to be. It’s also an excellent situation for young ’uns.
Berry picking is fun at eye level or on the ground; it is best done early in the day for quality of the fruit and comfort of picker. Regardless of the growing method, U-pick berries are sweeter, juicier and typically less expensive compared to the supermarket — $2.50 per pound at Hunsader Farms and $1.75 per pound at O’Brien Family Farms. Call ahead or check the website for a schedule and to see what other crops are available for picking.
Rhubarb and strawberry tart
Pastry for 9- or 10-inch pie (below) or use prepared
2 cups fresh, young rhubarb cut into half-inch cubes
2 cups fresh strawberries, halved if small, quartered if large
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
3 tablespoons flour
2 eggs lightly beaten
1/2 cup orange marmalade (or substitute apricot jam)
1 tablespoon water
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Prepare the pastry and use it to line a 9-inch quiche pan with a removable bottom or a 9-inch or 10-inch pie dish.
3. Combine rhubarb and strawberries in a mixing bowl and add the sugar and cardamom blended with the flour. Toss. Add the eggs and blend thoroughly. Pour mixture into pie shell, place on a baking sheet, and bake for 40 minutes or until set. Remove and let cool.
4. Heat the marmalade with the water, stirring until melted. Spoon over the pie and smooth out. Remove the pie from the quiche pan or serve directly from the pie pan.
Yield: Pastry for a 9-inch or 10-inch pie, eight or more servings
1 1/2 cups flour
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons confectioner’s (10 X) sugar
8 tablespoons cold butter
3 tablespoons ice-cold water (approximately)
1. Combine the flour, yolks, sugar and salt to taste in a mixing bowl or, preferably, the container of a food processor. Cut the butter into fine pieces and cut into flour with two forks then work with the hands to add just enough water so the pastry holds together. Or process by machine, and add the water gradually.
2. Remove the dough and shape it into a ball or rectangle. Wrap in wax paper and chill until ready to use.
3. Roll the dough out on a floured board, rotating and using a little more flour as necessary to prevent sticking.
4. Line a 9-inch or 10-inch tart pan or pie tin with the pastry, crimp if using a pie pan, and trim off any excess.
IF YOU GO
5500 County Road 675
O’Brien Family Farms
16505 State Road 64