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The first difference I notice between Maryland and California strawberries is in how you attain them. You can waltz into just about any supermarket, slap down a carton of California berries onto the conveyor belt, and waltz right back out the door without once breaking a sweat. With the Maryland variety, you often have to squat on your haunches and pick the little red sumbitches yourself.
That’s not the only difference between these East and West Coast strawberries. But it’s the one foremost in my mind as I’m bent over at the waist, feeling the sting of serrated leaves against my forearms and fighting with the sap beetles for the late-season fruit at Larriland Farm in Woodbine. The weather is actually pretty good for picking; storm clouds have cleared, and the temperature hovers comfortably in the 80s. Still, just 20 minutes into my mission, I’m already huffing and puffing. All I have to show for my effort is one heaping carton of Ovation berries. In a moment that I suspect rarely occurs with migrant workers in California, I consider taking a break to check my messages back at the office.
Connoisseurswill tell you the toil is worth it for Maryland strawberries, which enjoy a short spring season when compared to their almost year-round California counterparts. Maryland berries also last maybe three days after plucking, which explains why it’s best to pick your own instead of buying them from a farmers market. The fresher, the better.
California strawberries, local promoters argue, are bred for size, color, and hardiness, the better to look ripe and sexy after a cross-country jaunt. Free State berries, by contrast, are smaller, more fragile, and built for flavor, not transportation. “They actually have taste,” deadpans Dick Biggs, owner of Rock Hill Orchard in Mount Airy.
Like all generalizations, particularly those tied to a regional bias, I figure not all California berries suck. Some, no doubt, compare favorably against the locals, particularly when companies like Watsonville, Calif.-based Driscoll’s continue to develop their own proprietary varieties that dial up the sweetness quotient. So I decide to conduct a small taste test to see how well two locally grown varieties—Ovation and Darselect—compete head-to-head with store-bought Driscoll’s berries. The medium for my test? Homemade strawberry shortcake.
The local berries, naturally enough, have a distinct advantage in the test. I can comb through an entire field of strawberries at Larriland to pick the ones I like best. Plus, I have Lynn Moore, Larriland’s president and daughter of the farm’s founders, to advise me on how to spot a good ripe berry: At their peak, she says, strawberries are a brilliant crimson, with no white spots, and have a shiny, glossy skin. “They tend to dull when they’re past their peak,” Moore adds.
But the Larriland berries also have one distinct disadvantage: They have to travel back home in my vehicle, which has been sitting out in the June sun. The internal temperature, according to the thermometer on my dashboard, tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat is the fruit’s natural enemy, causing the already highly perishable berry to decay even faster. That’s why California strawberries picked for the fresh market are immediately air-cooled to a temperature between 32 and 34 degrees.
It quickly becomes clear how much the Maryland berries have started to decay when I begin slicing them for the shortcake. Any amount of knife pressure turns the fruit’s more fragile sections into a purplish mush; even the juices pooling on the cutting board seem to break down the berries’ flesh. Only the heart of each strawberry provides any attractive, workable pieces. By contrast, the California berries are a breeze to slice, as easy as cutting up a radish, which their slices kind of resemble: virtually white in the middle, with only an outer ring of pinkish color. The Maryland berries are crimson to the core.
I slice each carton almost in its entirety, wash the cutting board, and then start on the next variety. I don’t want the juices of one berry to influence the taste of another. I place the slices of each variety into separate bowls, add only a small amount of sugar to each bowl, and let them macerate in their own juices and sugar for an hour or so. In the meantime, my wife, Carrie, and I work on the shortcake biscuits and the fresh whipped cream with vanilla.
The taste test takes place at the house of our friends Joe and Tami. Their screened-in back patio makes an ideal spot for early-summer socializing; cool breezes slice through the mesh, mosquitoes don’t. Our mutual friends Jim and Jessica and their teenage son, Sam, join us for the shortcake showdown. We prime for the moment by sipping wine out of mini Dixie cups.
As much as I’ve tried to conceal the origin of each berry, it’s plain to anyone who’s ever bitten the nose off a California strawberry which biscuits are ferrying these monsters. But all the testers gamely refuse to let their eyes serve as their guides, relying instead on their tongues. The results are unanimous: The sweet and tart, if occasionally metallic, Maryland berries dominate. Some prefer the Darselects, some the Ovations, but no one picks the Driscoll’s variety.
Among all the wisecracks about the Golden State berries—Joe calls them the “Terminator of strawberries,” Jim compares them to wallflowers at a party because the meaty slices refuse to bond together—two comments strike me as particularly pertinent: Joe readily admits that he liked the California berries on first bite, perhaps because he has been “conditioned” to them, but picks the Maryland berries only when he focuses on the flavors. Adds Carrie about the California berries: “These don’t taste bad to me, but after eating the other two, it’s like these are leeched of flavor.”
I agree with my wife. The Driscoll’s strawberry suffers only by comparison. The California berry is sweet enough, if not tart enough, and it doesn’t have a mushy texture. You can make perfectly fine strawberry shortcake with these Left Coast imports.
For me, the ultimate joy of Maryland strawberries is not just on the palate but in the picking. The humble act of collecting fruit reminds you of the backbreaking work that goes into store-bought berries, but it also comes with its own reward. You can literally stand in a patch and breathe in the sweetness, which somehow smells like chocolate-covered strawberries. It’s the damnedest thing but perhaps not as damnable as this bit of news: You may have to do with Driscoll’s berries until next year. The short Maryland strawberry season ends this month.