By Rose Kaplan, "virtual intern:" It’s November. There’s a cool, crisp feel to the air, and the sound of crunching leaves underfoot., It means that Thanksgiving is right around the...
I was compensated for this trip by the California Strawberry Commission but the opinions expressed are my own, and have not been censored. Those of you who know me, know that I say what I think in the nicest way possible.
When I received the invite by the California Strawberry Commission to join a group of bloggers in Carmel for a strawberry tour all I could think about was the Beatles song, Strawberry Fields. Well, I was not alone because Yvette of Muy Bueno also titled her blog post Strawberry Fields Forever. It was self-evident. It had to be done.
Yvette posted well before I did but we were on the same wavelength regarding our time in Carmel and Watsonville. We stayed at the amazing Carmel Valley Ranch, the highlight there for me was getting to see gardener Mark Merino who I have known through his prior work at Earthbound Farm, yoga teaching and his involvement at IACP (the International Association of Culinary Professionals). Mark is, as many gardeners are, a down-to-earth guy with a great heart. It shows in his vegetables and flowers.
Now, back to the tour. Our first evening meet-and-great started off with wine and a family style strawberry-oriented dinner. This was my favorite dinner for a number of reasons. First of all, I got to meet a number of new people which was fun. Also, the food was served family-style which lends itself to more sharing around the table. When it came to the main course, though, I was presented with a large and oh-so-tasty dish of tofu with shiitake mushrooms and a strawberry sauce. It was one of my favorite dishes during my time there. This showed a lot of creativity by the chef and was something that a vegan or vegetarian would truly enjoy. (Thank you Kankana for snapping the photo .)
The two glasses of Pinot Noir with dinner were mighty tasty but getting up early on Monday to head out to the strawberry fields was not as easy as I’d hoped. I truly wanted to lounge around in my large guest suite tub, then sit on the balcony and just hang out, staring at the beautiful valley. Yet, I got up, grabbed some breakfast, my bag of candied ginger (the bus ride lifesaver) and met the group to get on the bus to the fields in Watsonville, about a 40 minute ride.
First we met the charming and entertaining Rod Koda. He’s such a nice guy, I just wanted to hang out with him indefinitely. We spent a good deal of time out in his fields, picking berries and learning about how strawberry plants grow. Rod lives on a smaller farm and farms only 28 acres. Of those, 7 are grown organically. He told us how his yield from organic berries is about half that of conventionally grown berries. It increased my compassion for organic growers and the prices that they have to charge to survive. Luckily the strawberry growing season spans from March to November.
We saw pickers in the fields. Did you know that they load the boxes that you will get at the store right there in the fields? (I didn’t realize that.)
From Rod’s fields, we had lunch in a small tent nearby and were treated to another fine strawberry meal. Here I am with Kristianne before we were full of chocolate covered strawberries.
After lunch, in order to keep us awake (or that’s my theory and I am sticking with it), we went to the “cooler”. Here we learned more than I ever thought that I’d want to know about how berries are chilled.
Honestly, though, here are some facts that you might not have thought about (I know that I hadn’t):
- Berries go from the field to the chiller in less than 1 hour of picking. For each hour that the berries are not cooled, you lose 1 day of shelf life. (Properly picked, chilled and stored berries can last a week or more in the refrigerator. Do not wash them until you are ready to use them.)
- The holes in the strawberry containers help keep them chilled properly.
- The cartons that they are put in also have holes in them to allow air circulation.
- Each flat of berries is marked with the time, farm, field and picker so that each box can be tracked. (This is serious business.)
- It takes less time for berries to get to Paris than it does for them to get to New York due to air travel.
Here I am with Jodi Reiman, Jen Carden and fellow RD, Mitzi Dulan in the refrigerated truck trailer. This was a first for me. The truck is huge.
From the cooler, we headed out to another strawberry field (from Natureripe) and did a bit more picking. People were taking many photos of themselves that afternoon. You can tell that I was definitely having a great time. It was a most spectacular day.
Luckily we had some time after we arrived back at Carmel Valley Ranch to put our feet up and relax. I did better than that and hopped into the hot tub. It was one of the most spectacular hot tubs I have ever been in, overlooking a small valley. After that my feet went up the wall (in a yoga pose called Viparita Karani) and I spent a short time relaxing before outdoor cocktails and dinner.
Here are a few shots of dinner and my meal.
The salad was mighty tasty as would be expected when you are served the sweetest possible, just picked strawberries. The main course is my pet peeve dish (pasta primavera). While the vegetables were mighty tasty, giving me a plate of pasta (and again at lunch the next day) is a faux pas and shows a lack of chef creativity. How I longed for another dish of that tofu with mushrooms and strawberries. (Chefs take note, your vegetarian and vegan guests will love you more when you take as much care with their dishes as you do with the meat eaters. We need more than pasta and vegetables for an entree. Rant done.)
The following morning, we met as a group to meet the chef, Mike Woods, and to be challenged to our own Iron Chef-type strawberry challenge. I had the chance to work with Claudya, Jennifer and Nicole. Our group worked well together and we were not stressed by our creation of Strawberry Risotto with Scallops, a version of my Strawberry Balsamic dressing on greens and Claudya’s amazing Strawberry and Avocado Salsa. which got rave reviews from the judges. While we were not picked as the number 1 group, I consider us all winners.
I came home with a couple of large boxes of strawberries. Despite how many berries I ate out in the field, I still love California strawberries. They are low in calories. only 50 in a cup, packed with Vitamin C and antioxidants and are a low glycemic food. Best of all, they taste amazing and are incredibly versatile. (While I wish all berries were organic, I am pleased that all the growers that we met grow some of their berries organically. I hope that they continue to convert more acreage to organic fruit.)
Here is our group out(standing) in the field.
Jodi (Garlic Girl), Mitzi (Nutrition Expert),ME (The Veggie Queen),
Kristianne (My San Francisco Kitchen), Jennifer (Playful Pantry), Laura (Superglue Mom), Jess (Sodium Girl), Kankana (Playful Cooking), Jennifer (Savory Simple), Amy (Cooking with Amy), Nicole (Pinch My Salt), Claudya (Unknown Mami) and not pictured but still part of the group: Yvette Muy Bueno Cookbook
The entire trip was wonderful. Other than eating, here is my favorite part: