By Elizabeth Keyser
When my husband’s family gathered to celebrate his birthday recently and I discovered that we had two baskets of strawberries from the West and East coasts, I thought a strawberry taste test could be a fun activity for all of us. The kids could practice observing and describing. The adults might find new things to think about. And I could see if Local = Better.
My 13-year-old niece Julia and I set the judging criteria and made the scorecards. We’d have to blind taste test them to avoid any prejudice. After the family spent an afternoon at the beach, we gathered on the front porch and got down to business.
I led the group through examining Strawberry “A” and Strawberry “B,” and each of us wrote our impressions on the scorecards. Then I revealed the baskets. The plastic container of Strawberry “A” was from a large-scale organic brand shipped from California. The cardboard container of “B” was from a small organic farm in Connecticut.
These are the compiled findings of our panel of 8 tasters ranging from 8 to 78 years old who tested two batches of strawberries. The berries that everyone wanted to eat right then were the sweet “A”s from California.
|Strawberry “A”||Strawberry “B”|
|Shape||Tall, cone-shaped||Shorter, Heart-shaped|
|Color||Darker red, duller||Bright, shiny red|
|Smell||Fruity||No smell/ greener aroma.|
|Squeeze Test||Firm||Soft, squishy|
|Taste||Sweet||Juicy, not much flavor.|
|Texture||Somewhat hard, seedy||Slightly mushy|
|Other Comments||“I want another!”
“I am not full!”
|“Not as good; bland.”
“I am still not full!”
But what about texture? We started talking about the firm texture required of a berry to be shipped across the country. Many of us preferred the softer, smoother texture of the local strawberry. The Connecticut strawberry’s smaller shape, and bright, shiny, fresh-looking color made them look like they’d taste better. Truth is, we were surprised they didn’t taste better. Then we thought about all the rain we’d had in June. The rain had diluted their sweet “strawberry-ness.” I was reminded that the best “local” strawberries I’ve ever had were picked in my garden a couple years back on a hot June day and eaten right away, while still warm from the sun. From my personal experience with berries on my property, it seems that those to be eaten right away, are best picked 2 to 3 days after the last rain — if the ripeness of the fruit and the weather permit. In this taste-test, we discovered that rather than eating them straight-up, these Connecticut berries would lend themselves to being drizzled with honey, or cooked into a sweet pie or a savory compote.
Was one “better”? No. Maybe. Depends. They were different from one another. The decision to buy berries from California or Connecticut is based on many factors. I prefer to eat berries that have been grown close to where I live. I want to know how they were raised. I want to support local farms that grow a variety of crops, rather than those that specialize in a mono-culture. California grows the majority of the strawberries grown in the United States. Let me add that from age 10 to 15 I lived in California, and have a great fondess for the state. I remember the glory of early spring when the bakeries on State Street in Santa Barbara were filled with luscious strawberry pies.
Our taste-test brought up many topics of discussion – craft vs. industrial farming; California’s dry spring weather vs. Connecticut’s variable and sometimes wet spring weather; and how much we don’t know about varieties of strawberries and how they are raised.
After our family taste-test, we agreed, most of all, that the taste-test was fun. As strawberry season comes to a close, we’ll go on to taste-test cherries, raspberries, peaches and more. And maybe I should add another category to my scorecard: weather conditions. What categories would you add?