Like me, you’ve been burned by bad berries. You know the ones — big, red, beautiful berries at the grocery store that lure you in with their good looks, but leave you with a disappointed pucker. Or worse.
There’s a season, after all, for everything. And when it comes to berries, it’s painfully short, but unbelievably sweet — hitting it’s pinnacle for just a few weeks each summer. Those weeks are right now. Like right now. Now!
“This is the perfect time to eat them and get a feel for each of them — the distinct flavors of each one of them,” said Gloria Vigil of Sebastopol Berry Farm. “This is what nature meant for you to have as a berry.” Vigil’s 10-acre family farm is one of the few dedicated exclusively to cultivating berries in the area.
The best place to find them: Local farmer’s markets. Because ripe berries are extremely perishable — and only truly delicious when picked ripe — the only way to really enjoy them is straight off the truck, within a day or two. Berries that are transported for large distances have to be picked unripe, and though they may look good, just won’t have the flavor of a truly ripe berry.
With this year’s rains, the fruit crop is about two weeks behind its usual schedule, according to Vigil, meaning that you’ll still be able to take advantage of the bounty. But don’t blink, or you’ll miss it. Here are some of the best berries to look out for…
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Your favorite way to eat berries?
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Blueberries are the workhorse of the summer berries, the least temperamental of the bunch. They pop their little blue faces onto the scene in early June and will last through mid-August. Fresh blueberries should always retain their powdery white “bloom”, a natural preservative on the berries. If that’s gone, they’ve been over-handled, according to Vigil. They’ll stay fresh in the fridge for a week or so, freeze well and are amenable to both sweet and savory dishes. Plus, their health-properties are lauded by scientists and nutritionists. Vigil’s blueberry ice cream is legendary among local foodies and is available at her family farm stand (call ahead for hours, 694.2301)
Blackberries (the most popular of which is the “Marion”, named for Marion County, Oregon where it was developed) have a ridiculously short peak season, and will be hitting their peak this week. Marions, according to The Berry Bible’s Janie Hibler (AmazonEncore, $17.95), have an intense blackberry flavor. Also watch for Olallies, which are another type of blackberry that ripens early in the season and has a sweet-tart character. Vigil said that Marion, Ollalie and Cherokee are always “crowd favorites” at her stand.
Although the parentage of Boysenberries may be obscure, they’re unmistakably Californian in nature. Thought to be a cross between a logan and Eastern dewberry, some credit its discovery to horticulture-legend Luther Burbank, though it was popularized by southern California farmer, Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm. Perishable to a fault, they’ve lost favor with most commercial growers because of their short shelf life — just a day or two. Local boysenberries will be in season only until the first weeks of July, so snap them up if you can find them. “They make the best jam and pies,” said Vigil.
Black Raspberries: Mysterious and elusive, the mere whisper of fresh black raspberries whips berry lovers into a frenzy. Another highly delicate, quick-to-perish berry, they’re best enjoyed right from the farmstand — if you can find them during their brief season, which is only through the next week or so. At their peak, they’ll have a deeper, darker flavor than the pert red raspberry. And of all the berries, they’re the king of nutrition, packed with the most anti-oxidants of any berry.
Red Raspberries: The darling of the berry world, raspberries are perennial favorites both as fruit and historically, as a medicinal herb. A vigorous plant, they’re often found wild and easily cultivated in the backyard. Yellow (or golden) raspberries have a similar taste to the red version, but are gaining popularity as a gourmet fruit.
Strawberries: Sold year-round and bred commercially for size and color rather than taste, strawberries are a kitchen staple — but only rarely at their very best. Due to a late start, they’re at their zenith right now and you’ll be lucky to make it home with a pint or two from the local farmers market. Strawberries are always best fresh from the patch, and like tomatoes, suffer a bit after they’ve been refrigerated. Keep in mind that size doesn’t always matter: Those giants you see at the supermarket are sometimes harvested long before they’re actually ripe, making for a pretty, but ultimately unsatisfying experience. Smaller berries, like the coveted alpine strawberries, often pack the biggest punch.
How to keep them: Delicate by nature, berries don’t appreciate a lot of handling. It’s recommended that you refrigerate most berries (strawberries are the exception), then leave them out to warm up on the counter for a few minutes before serving. If you’re going to freeze them, Gloria suggests that you not give hers a power-wash, but just a light rinse. “We pick ’em and put them in the containers that day and cold storage them overnight. There isn’t a lot of handling. We are certified organic, so we know there’s nothing on them but some dust,
Where to find them: Blueberries, blackberries and raspberries are available at the Sebastopol Berry Farm (9201 Ross Station Rd in Sebastopol (heading towards Forestville) or at many local farm markets. Call ahead to see if their farm stand is open 694.2301, or find them at Tuesday evening and Saturday markets in Healdsburg, Wednesday and Saturday market in Santa Rosa and Petaluma market on Saturday evening during peak season. Strawberries are available at most local farm markets for the next few weeks.