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April 13, 2005

Strawberries and Dreams

By DAVID KARP

CERTAIN fruits like pears and lemons are much the same as they were 50 or 100 years ago, but California strawberries have been radically transformed by industrial agriculture.

No other fruit evokes in me such profound ambivalence. Meeting with growers and breeders across the state over the past two years, I've been amazed by their horticultural wizardry, which produces crops of attractive, reasonably priced berries year round. But manifold compromises - in the selection of varieties and in the degree of ripeness at harvest, for example - often result in mediocre flavor.

California strawberries, now entering peak season, dominate United States markets. The growers - concentrated in four coastal districts, from Orange County, southeast of Los Angeles, to Watsonville, south of San Jose - produce 87 percent of the nation's crop. Plantings have increased 30 percent since 2001, to an estimated 34,300 acres this year. Consumption of fresh strawberries in this country has tripled in 30 years, to 5.3 pounds a year for each person.

Among the reasons for this success is the moderate climate of the state's strawberry districts, which naturally allows for an extended harvest. In recent decades growers have stretched the season and increased production by manipulating planting schedules and introducing high-yielding varieties. Yields surged to an average of 27 tons an acre, about 10 times those in the Northeast.

The cultivated strawberry is also genetically complex, giving it tremendous potential for variation. Breeders working for the University of California and six private companies plant thousands of seedlings and search for plants that provide, among dozens of other commercially attractive qualities, high yield; fruit that is large, firm, conical in shape and appealing in color; and resistance to pests and diseases. Good flavor is just one of the many desiderata.

Flavor, which depends on the level and balance of sugars, acids and aromatic compounds, is complex and subjective. But in general modern California varieties are less intensely flavored than the best older types, like Marshall and Fairfax, or the finest strains still grown in the Northwest (Hood) and Northeast (Earliglow and Tristar).

It was not always so. California's pre-eminence began with the exquisitely fragrant and flavorful Banner, a variant of Marshall widely grown from 1910 to 1950. Very moist and tender, it could be shipped barely across the road without leaking juice.

Victor Voth, 84, who shaped the modern strawberry through his breeding and horticultural research for the University of California from 1946 to 1991, remembers the Banner's high quality. "We haven't touched it yet," he said over lunch in Mission Viejo. Could it be grown again today? "No! It had no shelf life."

Over time he and other California breeders selected firmer fruits less susceptible to damage and decay, and shelf life increased from a few days to 10. But the texture of the current leading California varieties - Diamante, Camarosa and Ventana - can be unpleasantly hard to those accustomed to old-fashioned fruit. The proprietary varieties bred by Driscoll Strawberry Associates, the largest marketer, have a somewhat softer, more melting "mouth feel."

Breeders have also doubled the size of modern California varieties, partly to make them impressive but mostly to make them easier to pick, since harvesting accounts for half of growers' costs. The latest varieties average over an ounce, though some "king" berries can weigh close to a quarter pound. Berries probably won't get too much larger, though, because they wouldn't fit in the plastic clamshell containers used by shippers.

Because they don't sweeten after harvest, strawberries must be picked fully ripe for best flavor. But to ship berries cross-country commercial growers have to compromise and harvest before full maturity.

Local vendors can do much better. Harry's Berries, a farm in Oxnard, grows Seascape and Gaviota, two University of California varieties with good flavor that are a bit too soft and low-yielding for commercial growers. The owners pick the berries fully red and sell them at a premium, $4 a pint, at 24 Southern California farmers' markets. When everything goes right, the berries are quite sweet and richly flavored.

But most growers would sooner raise wombats than highly flavored but perishable strawberries. In contrast with the marketing of industrially grown tomatoes, whose insipidity inspired a small revival of heirloom varieties, almost all California strawberry shippers focus on mainstream markets, assuming that Americans look for price more than quality.

It seems, however, that competition among breeders, which is relatively new, may be changing the rules. Twenty years ago, the University of California and Driscoll were the only breeders in the state; now five other organizations are scrambling to fill lucrative market niches.

The private companies, like the university, put out a mix of winners and clunkers. Some of the more succulent, aromatic varieties I've tasted include Pearl and 18J408 (bearing only a test number) from Driscoll; 770-506 from Kanaka Peak Research; and Cal Giant 3 from California Giant. Albion, the university's newest variety, has better flavor than its predecessors.

But consumers in the United States don't know which varieties they are buying, unlike their counterparts in Europe, where retailers must identify the kinds they sell.

At least clamshell containers, introduced by Driscoll in 1989 and widely adopted by other companies, carry brand labels, an imprecise but still significant indication of quality. In one encouraging move this year, Driscoll instituted a program for its growers in Southern California, "Pay for Quality," that measures the sweetness of their berries and pays them more for better fruit. And Beach Street Farms, based in Watsonville, has been test-marketing a premium line, Brown Sugar, using high-quality varieties like 770-506 and Cal Giant 3.

Specialty growers of old-fashioned varieties are vanishingly rare in California. In Watsonville Nicholas Soto raises half an acre of tiny-fruited, intensely fragrant wild strawberries called fraises des bois in France. A different species from common strawberries, they have been cultivated in Europe since the Middle Ages, but they are delicate and small, an impossible combination for commercial growers.

As Mr. Soto explained on a pleasant April morning, it takes 45 minutes to pick one crate of 12 three-ounce baskets, which he sells for as much as $50. He raises two varieties from seed, red- and white-fruited, with similar flavor. Despite the berries' perishability, he flies a few crates to New York, where they go mostly to fancy restaurants.

The longtime desire of strawberry lovers for a larger berry with a wild aroma has materialized in the French Mara des Bois variety, now starting to be grown in California. It is small- to medium-size and deep red, with soft, melting flesh; when dead ripe, it's candy-sweet and has a fantastically intense wild fragrance.

Although some take it to be a hybrid of wild and cultivated strawberry, it is actually an inspired cross of four older cultivated varieties introduced in 1991 by Marionnet, a French nursery. It's the predominant high-end strawberry at French markets.

The Chino family, legendary for its secrecy and superb produce, grows half an acre of Mara des Bois organically in Rancho Santa Fe, an affluent suburb of San Diego; they sell at their chic farm stand and to the restaurants Spago and Sona in Los Angeles and Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Word is spreading: Driscoll is using the variety in its breeding program, and a commercial nursery, Sierra-Cascade, is propagating larger numbers of the plants for local growers in Southern California.


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