Sunday, 14 June 2009

Particular Customers

"Peter Henderson once lamented that it was the demise of the "particular customer" that eventually changed the way market gardeners did business. Boston and Philadelphia had been bastions of the type of consumers who demanded to know the background of their produce, how it was cultivated, and the comparitive tastes of different varieties, and tolerated no compromises in freshness and quality. This gave rise to hundreds of vegetables that sold themselves by virtue of having passed through this critical gauntlet: Boston lettuce, Philadelphia Market tomato, and much more. The New York market was different. As long as the produce looked good, it was possible to sell it. Henderson's greatest fear was that this standard should prevail nationwide once vast quantities of produce began moving across the country rather than coming from nearby farms. He was to be proved correct."

From Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, by William Woys Weaver.

It's time for my annual strawberry rant. This year, I'm going to urge you to become, if you are not already, a particular customer, not just of strawberries, but of all produce.

However, to get back to the strawberries: once upon a time, there were basically two types of edible strawberries; the small wild berries well-known in Europe and North America and a fleeting pleasure of early summer, and also a yellow strawberry that grew in Peru which was very large but insipid to the point of tastelessness. It was by crossing these two plants that the modern strawberry was invented - it acquired size from its Peruvian parent, and flavour from the (mostly) European wild parents.

Unfortunately, the link between size and flavour has proven to be very durable. The larger the strawberry, the blander and more insipid in flavour. The smaller the berries, the more they retain the rich flavour of their wild antecedants. It may be that in future some breeder will chance upon a berry that combines both features, but in the meantime all varieties of strawberries are to some degree a compromise between size and flavour.

I have in the past contemptuously referred to the large berries favoured first by growers in California as "California" strawberries. You know the ones; large, firm, beautifully coloured with a slight scent and the flavour and texture of acidulated cardboard. They are available all year, thanks to grossly exploited farm labour and hair-raisingly horrible cultivation practices, involving vast quantities of chemicals of dubious safety.

At least there were the local strawberries, in season, which were smaller, deliciously flavoured, softer and without much shelf-life, and entirely worth waiting 10 months from the end of one season to the beginning of the next. It is with perfect horror though, that I have seen that they are starting to be replaced with "California" strawberries, locally grown. NOOOOO!!!!!!

I urge you to avoid these strawberry zombies. Don't buy them. Don't pick them. If you accidentally buy some, take them back and complain bitterly, loudly and long. Be a particular customer. The world will thank you, or at least I will.


Marc Beranger said...

Just stumbled upon your blog. Great work.

On the topic of the berry flavour and size. I have the same opinion of Blueberries. In my youth in Northern ontario I still remember picking wild blueberries just south of Cochrane. They still remain the benchmark by which all blueberries are judged. The large blueberries that are found in supermarkets and frankly even in some farmers markets are watery shadows of a real blueberry.

Once again excellent work. Will include a link to your blog from the 100 mile Diet-Newcastle Facebook group

Ferdzy said...

Thanks, Marc! I'm afraid I'm not at all a user of facebook - enough of my time gets sucked up by the computer already. But I do appreciate it.

Unlike the strawberries, I do enjoy cultivated blueberries and think they are worth eating, but you are right - they are pretty feeble compared to the wild ones. Actually, I think they have gotten better in recent years; here they've managed to combine size and flavour to a reasonable degree. I do wish I had a place around here to pick the wild ones though!

Kevin Kossowan said...

I just planted 30-40 wild strawberry plants dug up from a field near my dad's. For the same reasons you mention. Give me small, give me seasonal, but damnit, give me tasty.

ejm said...

The other thing that drives me mad is that local Ontario strawberries and tastefree "California" strawberries are sold side by side in June AND that the "California" strawberries that have travelled thousands of kilometers are priced lower than the clearly better (to us) strawberries from a relatively short distance away!

I do WANT to support local fruit farmers. But they aren't making it easy to do so by picking their fruit when it is completely green and allowing it to ripen off the vine or tree! Naturally, (cough) this is going to produce fruit that has zero flavour.

I had no idea that these giant strawberries were being cultivated here in Ontario too. Whenever I see those strawberries, I just assume they from far away and refuse to buy them. As you say, they look good but they have zero flavour. Zero aroma too.

Our method of fruit buying is by using our eyes and noses. If it looks ripe, then we pick one piece of fruit up. If the fruit SMELLS like fruit, it's much more likely to taste like it. And if we have to brush a whole ton of wasps away from where the fruit is, all the better.


(Last night we saw an ad extolling the virtues of Ontario tomatoes, saying that it took x amount of days to produce the perfect hothouse tomato. AUGH!! Are they really congratulating themselves that they don't grow the tomatoes outside to be sun ripened?)

Ferdzy said...

Amen, Elizabeth!

I figure there are two reasons that the big mostrosities are being grown here now. One; the fact that people are stupid enough to buy them has been well established by the "California" berries, and two; I've noticed that at pick-your-own farms, when the farmer says flat out, "the BIG berries are in this field, and the GOOD berries are in that field, a lot of people went for the big berries. WTF! But there's no question they are at least twice as fast to pick, and unfortunately, a lot of people are more lazy than particular.

As for the greenhouse tomatoes, I do have more sympathy for them. I remember my mom buying them when I was a kid, and they were perfectly horrible then. Now they aren't a patch on an in-season, vine ripened tomato, but they are really not bad, and I'm much happier buying them in the off-season than, say, tomatoes from Florida, which may very well have been cultivated and harvested by people literally being held as slaves.

Lisa said...

Aww, now, being from California, this (admittedly a bit old) post makes me pretty sad. I buy nice strawberries at the local farmers' markets in season (ca. June). It's true there seems to be an inverse relationship between size and flavor, and I've come to regard the large ones as "mutants" and use my nose as the judge of whether a basket of berries is worth buying... but, ouch! It makes me sad to hear this, in any case. Not that I would encourage berries being carted the long distance from my 100-mile radius to Ontario (I have lived in Kitchener too, BTW)... but somehow it makes me feel like I'm sharing in a much larger wrong just for living here!