Monday, June 28, 2010

Swanton strawberries

This is the time of year when my thoughts turn to those delectable red nuggets that grow so well on the central coast of California: perfectly ripe organic strawberries. And there's no better place for them in my book than the ones at Swanton Berry Farm just up the coast from Santa Cruz and about five minutes north of Davenport.

Now is when they're at their most luscious, bursting with berry goodness and so sweet that sugar isn't needed. Even JH turns down the offer of sweeteners, which is really saying something. Actually, you don't even have to wash the berries before diving into that tantalizing flat or half-flat that you just bought, since they're not sprayed and besides, the morning fog swept off any suggestions of dust, so revel in them on your way to the car.

But this berry farm is unusual in many ways, not just because it offers the best berries around. For one, there's nobody at the cash register. It's totally on the honor system, so you pay what you're supposed to, take whatever change you need, and give yourself a ten percent discount if you bicycled your way in. (Although how you'd balance a flat of berries on a ten-speed is beyond me.)

For those with a serious sweet tooth, the farm offers their own homemade jams, freshly-baked ollalieberry pies, and chocolate-dipped strawberries. I've never tried them since I've always been to mesmerized by that fresh strawberry perfume to even consider trying anything else.

Swanton is a union farm, and I like to play "spot the UFW" whenever I bring friends over there. For example, there's a great picture of Cesar Chavez on one wall (see below), a nice "si se puede" sign over the cash till, and even the pies get into the action with a pastry cutout of the farmworkers' eagle on top.

If you like to pick your own berries, this farm obliges with pick-you-own fields of strawberries at this farm, and then further up the coast near Ano Nuevo there's another of their farms with kiwis, blackberries, and ollalieberries clamoring for attention.

But it's the strawberries that should be the focus of your visit because they are just so incredibly good. Part of it has to be the fact that they are organic. In fact, Swanton's was the first certified organic strawberry farm in California, way back in 1987, and in 1998 was the first organic farm to contract with the United Farm Workers, so you're enjoying a bit of history in every piece of fruit.

These strawberries are best when served simply, perhaps over some ice cream or yogurt, eaten one by one with not even their tops removed, or sliced into a large bowl and perhaps lightly sprinkled with some good balsamic vinegar. Whatever you do, make the quality of these berries the highlight of your dish, because things this good are one of the greatest joys in life!

Here's a wonderfully simple recipe from a new cookbook I've come to love, Recipes from an Italian Summer (Phaidon, 2010). Try this when it's hot out, the strawberries are perfect, and you are ready to relax. It's a winner.

Minted strawberry salad 
Insalata di fragole alla menta
Recipes from an Italian Summer
Serves 4 to 6

2¼ cups Asti Spumante or other sparkling white wine
20 mint leaves
2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar
2¼ pounds strawberries

Cesar Chavez
¾ cup superfine sugar

1. Pour the wine into a large bowl, add 12 of the mint leaves, and let stand in a cool place for 3-4 hours. Pour the vinegar into a large bowl of cold water, add the strawberries without hulling them, and rinse well. Drain on paper towels, hull the strawberries, and cut any larger ones in half. Put them into a salad bowl, add the sugar, and stir gently. Remove the mint leaves from the wine and discard.

2. Now, pour the wine over the strawberries, cover, and let stand in a cool place, but not in the refrigerator, for 1 hour to let the flavors mingle. Just before serving, finely chop the remaining mint and sprinkle it over the strawberries.

1 comment:

  1. Those berries look great! Our crop came and went in May due to our high heat this season. That recipe looks interesting, although we usually eat up the strawberries too quickly to ever get them into a recipe!