The summer strawberry showdown: local vs. Californian - Macleans.ca

The summer strawberry showdown: local vs. Californian

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

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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.