The summer strawberry showdown: local vs. Californian

Our all-new food blog, Eat it up hosts a taste test in the newsroom

I think my strawberry obsession has gone too far.  Let me explain: there’s a green grocer right at the end of my street in the west end of Toronto that sells the plastic packs of California berries side by side with the local pints.

And when I see somebody choosing the American variety over the homegrown ones, I get all fussy in the face and desperately want to whisper to them, “Oh hey there. Why don’t you try these little guys over here? So much better!” The way I imagine it, I wouldn’t come off sounding like a creepy stranger: I’d just sound concerned, maybe slightly maternal.

I never say anything, of course: I just let them leave with their unripe, giant cartoon-like strawberries that taste of nothing.

Is it that Torontonians just don’t know any better? Maybe they’re used to the American and Mexican stock of strawberries available to them year-round in the big grocery store chains that rarely carry local produce.

They didn’t grow up, like I did, in an area where little booths selling seasonal farm fresh produce dot the country back roads.  They didn’t have a summer job as a teenager at a farm market with a walk-in cooler the size of a gymnasium in which they’d lock themselves in order to eat local strawberries from pints stacked tall on wooden flats while their boss yelled from outside, “Where in the hell is Jess? The staff washroom needs plunging! AGAIN!” And they didn’t get a second summer job at a local strawberry farm as a cashier smack dab in the middle of the field taking money from people picking their own berries, where on top of your six bucks an hour you’d also end each shift with two pints of fruit that would never actually make it home because you ate them all and would, as a consequence,  poop pink for all of July.

I’ll admit, I haven’t actually sampled one of those leviathan California suckers in a long time.  And because my palate is certainly not the be all and end all, I decided to buy a pint of each variety and bring them into the office to conduct a blind test test among my colleagues.

Now, when there’s food in the Maclean’s newsroom, it goes fast—like a pack of hyenas stripping the meat clean off a downed zebra’s carcass fast. But when I invited them to sample the two types of berries, there was some hesitation—and a few questions: “What’s this? Oh I get it: organic versus non-organic, right?”  Another writer thought it was a taste-off between big berries and little berries. They were like children, eager for some sort of reward for figuring out the puzzle.

They’re a suspicious lot, too, and they don’t like tricks. I tried to reassure them there was no right or wrong answer but when the first few tasters chose the Californian ones, I was ready to overturn the little table I’d set up and tell them all to go to hell.  But my spirits were lifted when an editor passed by and said, “Well, it’s obvious. The little berries are local and the big ones are from Mexico or California. I don’t even have to taste them: the local ones win hands down.”

It was a tight race right to the end: 11 Maclean’s staffers chose the local berries and nine favoured the Californian variety.  (By the by, I did purse my lips and try the Californian strawberry. Although it wasn’t as tasteless as others I’ve had in the past—in fact, it kind of tasted like processed jam—the mealy texture and flavour didn’t compare to the local variety.) Funny thing is, the cost of the berries—the Californian ones are half the price—wasn’t even a deciding factor for the Maclean’s group. It might be, for others. But at the end of the day, I’d be happy paying an extra two bucks and change for berries that have endeared themselves to me as profoundly as Proust’s madeleines did to him. And I’m happy to get my fix for only six weeks of the year, too.

Hungry for more? Read Jessica’s personal blog, Foodie and the Beast right here.

 




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The summer strawberry showdown: local vs. Californian

  1. And to this I will add: not only do the dear sweet little local ones taste better, but what the he!! are people in Canada doing making strawberry shortcake out of those tasteless little sponges from Safeway?  Tea biscuit, people, and real cream, not something that is essentially an oil petroleum product!

    Cute blog.

    • Just introduced my grandchildren to ‘real’ strawberries.  None of them made it home for dessert – they devoured them in the back seat of the car. 

      • Yes, Jan – in BC you guys are in fruit heaven!  Who would ever buy from California in the summer!  Do you guys go to a u-pick?

  2. Yes, of course I want to support local growers / organic etc. But geesh…have you gone blind? Look at the price. Are you going to tell me that you have NEVER purchased meat that was not organic / grain fed? 

    Look around you. I live in a city center, the grocery stores that really push local products are premium stores where it’s justified that they charge double and, we all expect it. 

    If you really want to gripe about something, at least make it productive. Yes, I want to support our farmers but, until their products are competitively  price my purchases will have to be few and far between

    • Clearly price is a greater factor in your purchases. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s unlikely that Canadian producers will match California’s on price both due to scale and labour costs.

    • Yes, the major grocery chains all sell the California strawberries, but it is possible to find locally grown ones at a reasonable price - try checking out a small family-run fruit market or farmers market. 

      • Yes and even better, if you have access to wheels of some kind, why not go to a UPick farm for an afternoon – my mum used take us out berry picking for the day, and we liked it more than most labour — the owner should have weighed the kids going in and out and charged for us too — I remember thinking — oh, that’s the biggest ripest strawberry ever (chomp)…no, this one is the biggest ripest one (chomp again)…

    • Where do you live Caroline?

  3. Ms Allen – not everyone shares your preferences in strawberries or strawberry shortcake. 

    Get over it and stop hectoring people who aren’t exactly like you. Maybe you would have fewer grey hairs The Beast mentioned if you were only concerned with yourself and not everyone else’s choice in strawberries. 

    Virginia Postrel: 

    Stasist social criticism—which is to say essentially all current social criticism—brings up the specifics of life only to sneer at or bash them. Critics assume that readers will share their attitudes and will see contemporary life as a problem demanding immediate action by the powerful and wise. 

    This relentlessly hostile view of how we live, and how we may come to live, is distorted and dangerous. It overvalues the tastes of an articulate elite, compares the real world of trade-offs to fantasies of utopia, omits important details and connections, and confuses temporary growing pains with permanent catastrophes. 

    • maybe you should see a doctor about that chip on your shoulder… it sounds big!

      for christ’s sake man, immediate action by the powerful and wise? tastes of an articulate elite? we’re talking about strawberries here–try and dump those californian GMO monstrousities on a hunter-gatherer tribe, you’ll get a spear through your face!

    • TonyAdams, there is nothing wrong with encouraging consumers to support Canadian farmers and enjoy produce raised in their own neighborhoods.

      • Authenticity Hoax:

        This shifts the battleground of food wars from a debate between organic and conventional grown ….. 

        The environmental benefits of local farming are actually highly overstated … 

        http://books.google.ca/books?id=r3hFDDtyPSgC&pg=PT139&lpg=PT139&dq=andrew+potter,+local+produce&source=bl&ots=d6UCNY6nKe&sig=JhuntjUbBHXE13ROBS9QSkcp5w0&hl=en&ei=etQpTqTgGtClsALR0a2rCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBwQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

        PJ O’Rourke ~ Government may make some environmental improvements, but these will be improvements for rich bird-watchers. And no one in government will remember that when poor people go bird-watching they do it at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

        • Who said anything about organic vs. conventionally grown produce!  As for buying the goods of the Canadian farmer….everyone on these blogs is  lamenting how us taxpayers are subsidizing them so why not just by their goods…your paying for them anyway.  Furthermore, when there is a newsbulletin that there is food poison due to water contamination via packaged lettuce (due to contaminated water) it is usually not local produce but produce out of California.  It only makes sense that you buy produce raised next door when it is in season vs. a thousand miles a way.  U am still not getting your argument TonyAdams, maybe you want to expant on it.

  4. If you buy larger sizes right now in the Byward Market, local strawberries are more price competitive. It can be difficult for one person to eat two pints of strawberries before they start to spoil, but coworkers don’t mind my sharing. Ditto raspberries, blueberries, tomatoes… 

  5. Nice blog!

    I do not understand why people thinks that the bigger the better, is the other way around, smaller are  much, much better and so worth the price!

  6. As a girl who anticipates summer and local produce, I have been very disappointed with many fruits, particularly strawberries, this year. My first batch of (I must say expensive) local strawberries tasted sour. The next batch of berries were rotten in the middle. Now I sadly have resorted to buying California again (which actually happen to taste way sweeter and better during the summer months). Call me a traitor but paying double for disappointing quality is not going to happen this summer. Why are they so expensive this year anyway? I would think their being local would keep the fuel price down! 

    • You are learning a lesson that produce yields and quality are dependant on spring and summer weather.  You might live in a region where the weather has not been ideal.  Lucky for you, there is the option to buy produce from California.  California produce is cheaper because the owners of the fields there employ cheap illegal Mexican laborers who cannot ask for minimum wage or complain about working conditions for fear of deportation.  Gives a whole new meaning to cheap California produce doesn’t it?

  7. I know why so many of your testers chose the big tasteless ones.

    Most of them have never known real Canadian strawberries, and that’s because Canadian strawberries — although still better than imported ones — are no longer the berries we remember: small and dark, exploding with juice and bursting with flavour.

    Yep, the farmers have pulled those out and replaced them with bigger, firmer ones that travel better. Sound familiar?

    • I grew up in Northern Alberta – sun shines until 10 pm; stays light until midnight & starts getting light again at 2am…with all that sunlight, the strawberries are big and tasty too.  There as well as outside Calgary, there are u-pick farms for strawberries, raspberries and saskatoons.  Therefore, it really depends on what part of the country you live in whether you are familiar with the local produce.  We also benefit from fresh cherries, peaches, nectarines brought in by growers in BC.  One thing that shocks me though, is that the big chains don’t carry local potatoes when they are in season.  When I asked the guy at Safeway, his reply is that “we are an American company.”  Now I seek out the travelling vendors for the local vegetables too.  There is just no comparison in taste.  If you have to pick something so is can be shipped a few thousand miles, you can’t let is rippen on the vine.

  8. This berry lover now lives in Sydney, Australia where a 125gm punnet of raspberries goes for $6.99 in the summer!  Much better than the $13.99 that it goes for during off seasons – if they are available at all.  It kills me!!  Back in Canada, you are so spoiled for cheap fruit; you have no idea!  
    On top of the exorbitant berry prices, after the floods etc. in QLD this year devastated banana crops, we’re now paying up to $14.99/kilo for bananas.  We’ve certainly had to curb our smoothie addictions in my house!
    Even though I miss going to Costco back in Canada and picking up my 2lb punnet of strawberries for just a few bucks, I can see the value in buying our local produce – besides the taste.  I believe that we waste a lot less than before, because our precious berries are so costly; and also buying QLD bananas gives our money back to farmers who lost so much in the floods. 
    If we can’t afford them, we’ll just have to go without. 

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