16 June, 2008

Strawberry Season

Strawberry season starts slowly in New England. Sometime around the second week of June, signs start appearing by the roadsides. Mostly hand-painted, they announce that the fields are ready for picking. Some, like the one at right, spell it out and give the name of the farm you'll be visiting. Others are simpler: There might just be a big picture of a strawberry with an arrow pointing down the side road.

By the middle of the third week, the fields are filled with folks picking berries, and the farm stands have opened, offering pint- and quart-sized baskets of fruit already picked. Churches and civic groups start advertising their Strawberry Supper fundraisers, where for a few dollars one can get a decent meal finished off with delicious homemade strawberry shortcake for dessert. If you're lucky, it will be real shortcake biscuits under those berries, and not those nasty yellow spongecake cups that people from Away try to call "shortcake."

My favorite time to pick strawberries is the early morning. Many of the farms in the area open for picking around 7:00 am. The sun is new in the sky, there's usually a bit of fog in the fields, and the dew is still on the berry plants. A lot of people bend over the rows as they pick, but I prefer to put on old clothes and a pair of kneepads and crawl along the row at berry level, finding juicy red treasures hiding under the leaves as I creep along, pushing a shallow flat tray in front of me.

By nine in the morning, the fog has burned off and the sun is high enough in the sky to start baking the fields, but my wife, daughter, and I are ready to go home anyway, having picked about twenty pounds of berries. That sounds like a lot, but they go fast: we eat some out of hand, make shortcake (of course,) and strawberry-rhubarb pie; there are batches of strawberry preserves to put up, and we also freeze some for later use. (We freeze some small amounts of every berry that comes ripe in season so that at the end of the summer we can make a Mixed Berry Preserve as well.)

Unfortunately, strawberries here are a cool-weather crop and by the first couple weeks of July they're out of season again. I have some everbearing varieties in my garden that will supply us with a small amount through late August, but the big rush will be over and the pick-your-own places will be moving on to other fruits like raspberries, blueberries, and orchard fruits later towards September and October.

While it lasts, though, the berries are everywhere, as much part of our New England heritage as maple sugar in February, apples in September, and pumpkins in October.

"Shortcake" is a slightly sweetened biscuit, baked up on the dry side so it can drink up plenty of strawberry juice when it's topped with berries and whipped cream. If you've only had "strawberry shortcake" on those horrid yellow spongecake cups that taste like they've been carved out of a Hostess Twinkie, do yourself an enormous favor and try my grandmother's recipe for real shortcake:


2 cup flour
4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoon sugar
5 tablespoon butter
2/3 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 425

Butter and lightly flour an 8-inch cake pan or a cookie sheet.

Mix the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in a bowl. Cut the butter in bits and work it into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or your fingers until it resembles coarse meal. Slowly stir in the milk, using just enough to hold the dough together. Turn out onto a floured board and knead for a minute or two. Put the dough into the cake pan, or roll or pat it 3/4 inch thick and cut it into eight 2-inch rounds, using a biscuit cutter. Arrange the rounds on a cookie sheet and bake them for 10 - 12 minutes (or bake the larger cake for 12 - 15 minutes.) Split with two forks while still warm. Spread with butter if you like, fill with sugared berries, and serve warm with heavy cream or whipped cream.

No comments: