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Sweets of summer

In the late 1960s, when the editors at Time-Life Books developed their classic "Foods of the World" series and chose an image for the cover of the volume on American Cooking, they did not select a photo of apple pie. They picked strawberry shortcake.

This seems fitting. It would be hard to think of a dessert with a more American pedigree than this layering of cake and berries that used to go by the name Strawberry Bread or Strawberry Cake.

Of course, strawberries were known and loved in Europe long before Europeans encountered the American continent, but the original European berries were much smaller, and their season was so short that recipes involving the berries were superfluous. Most often the berries were eaten as soon as they were gathered. But in the early 18th century, the French officer Amedee-Franzois Frezier found large Chilean berries growing at the base of the Andes and took plants home to cross with European berries. That prompted an international strawberry-development campaign that led to hybrids of berries from Britain, North America, continental Europe and South America, and eventually to Fragaria x ananassa. The species includes all the dozens of cultivated varieties, both June-bearing and ever-bearing grown here in the Northwest.

Fragile, June-bearing favorites like Shuksan, Totem and Hood seem to grow as well or better here than anywhere else in the world. Farmers like Skagit Valley's Don Kruse will harvest something in the neighborhood of 10,000 pounds of June-bearing strawberries in coming weeks. And for almost as long as he's been growing berries, he has been active in "Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland," an organization dedicated to ensuring that farming remains an integral part of the valley's cultural and economic identity.

"We have a worldwide reputation here for growing the best strawberries," says Kruse. "This is where Haagen Dazs comes to get berries for their premium ice cream." But some Skagit growers have recently been turning their fields over to ever-bearing, day-neutral varieties more typically associated with California growers. "We have to be careful not to lose our distinction over California," says Kruse.

The day-neutral varieties offer some distinct advantages to growers: They're more disease resistant, less likely to perish on the way to market after picking, and ripen over a longer period of time. But to the consumer, the day-neutrals can be a major disappointment. These varieties lack the deep-red sweetness that characterizes a classic Northwest berry. The tradeoff presents a challenge for farmers like Kruse.

"Because of their high sugar content," he says, "the older varieties have a relatively short shelf life. That's why we never carry berries over to the next day at our stands. Fresh every day is the secret to top quality with our kind of strawberries."

Since the June-bearing strawberries are so fragile, most of them end up in processing plants where they're frozen or turned into jam. But growers are happiest - and get the best price - when the berries are marketed fresh. Aficionados of local strawberries who wait all year for the soft, red berries to come to the market will tell you they're worth the wait.

Source: Seattle Times

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