Strawberry season, in my family, is a religious thing. We pick strawberries in late June and early July the way other families watch Wimbledon or take Saturdays at the beach—every year, all together, no matter what.
We wake up early, at seven or even six, and we drive out to Bowdoin, a few towns over from where I grew up in Maine. We bring our stained green quart containers from last year and our sunscreen and our hats, and we haul flats of empty boxes down the rows at Prout's field until they're picked full. We pick until our fingers are stained and our lips are red, and we make sure to get forty quarts at the very least.
Then we haul the berries back home, lay them out on the kitchen counter like checkers, and everyone takes their spots. My father pulls the greens from the berry heads, my sister washes, I chop. My mother pulls out the big pots for jam—the jars in a water bath on the back burner and the sugar and the berries bubbling up front. We make pint upon pint of jam, to last all year on toast and peanut butter sandwiches and stirred into plain yogurt sometimes.
But not this year.
This year, between the rain and the hail and the grey fruit mold—between those three, the strawberries were done in. There were some berries at the markets, certainly; they were big, plump, and juicy, and they had hardly any taste. They could have been California strawberries for all we knew.
I talked to Tim Friary about it the other day—Tim from Cape Cod Organics Farm in Barnstable who sells the berries at the markets in Hyannis and Orleans. He said he'd lost 150 cases by mid June, $6,000 down the drain. He said they just melted—ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But it was the terrific lack of sunshine that got them the most. The strawberries come in June for a reason, he explained: they rely on the longest days of the year, on the peak of light and loads of sunshine to get that sweet, signature taste. Needless to say, they got hardly a single day.
Still, we've eaten a few. We've brought home a quart here and there from Tim, or from Andy Pollock in Provincetown, and we've doled them out on tip-toe. Mostly, we've been stretching them out on salads.
That one right up there is one of my favorites: butter lettuce, basil, and balsamic with just a sprinkling of strawberries. They go on a long way on salad, strawberries do—you only need two or maybe three to make the whole thing jump. The basil doesn't hurt, of course—it's been thick with strawberries since ages and ages ago—and the balsamic makes an excellent third wheel. But the strawberries are the ones that round up the troops, bringing together crisp and peppery and floral into one big, ecstatic bunch.
It may not feel like a big, ecstatic bunch sort of season in general, I know. But for this last week—before the berries disappear until next year—I plan to revel in the possibility all I can.
STRAWBERRY BASIL SALAD
There might not be enough strawberries for jam, but there are certainly plenty to top a salad. Basil and strawberries are a well known pair, and the balsamic in this recipe compliments both. Look for a mild lettuce without too much of its own personality—that way the basil and berries won't have anything too strong to compete with.
1 pound sweet, mild lettuce, washed and dried
1 bunch basil, leaves picked, washed, and dried
3 tablespoons sweet balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
1 pint strawberries, washed and sliced
Toss lettuce and basil together in a large serving bowl. Dress with oil and vinegar, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the strawberries last, sprinkling them on top, so that they don't disappear to the bottom too fast.
P.S. This year, I planted my own strawberry patch. Luckily, I wasn't counting on any berries just yet, but the plants sent out runners all over the place, and from just six plants they've nearly filled in a 10 foot space. Spring and August are the two best times to plant, so if you have any interest in getting a patch going, I recommend doing some research over here first. There are all sorts of tid-bits about choosing varieties and how to mulch and what not. Good luck!