Strawberry nirvana

June 03, 1994

June means graduation, weddings, Father's Day . . . and strawberries. Within days, the first plump rosy berries of summer will begin appearing at roadside stands throughout the region, at church festivals and on top of breakfast cereals.

Now that fresh produce in the grocery stores comes from Florida, California or even Mexico, strawberries are available just about any time of the year. While these berries that travel long distances often look attractive, they don't have the taste or the subtle fragrance of a strawberry picked at the peak of freshness.

Walking through a field of ripening berries in the early morning is the best way to experience the sweet aroma of fresh strawberries. Eating a plump, juicy strawberry covered with dew may be as close to reaching gustatory nirvana as it possible to come.

It looks as though the harsh winter just behind us did not do much damage to these fragile plants, which are distant relations of the rose family. Before winter sets in, farmers cover their strawberry plants with straw and mulch. The snow and ice that created such havoc for drivers and pedestrians this year helped to insulate the strawberry plants. The spell of hot weather in May helped speed the flowering of the plants, but the cooler weather of the last week has slowed the ripening process.

Beginning in a week or so, thousands of people will be tromping through the carefully tended strawberry fields throughout the county, filling up cartons and boxes -- and their mouths -- with luscious fruit.

There is only one way to harvest strawberries: You have to bend over and pick each one by hand. The work is hard, particularly in the midday sun, but the rewards are glorious. Boxes of strawberries produce gallons of ice cream, dozens of short cakes and quarts of fresh jam.

Those souls who don't like the back-breaking work of harvesting fresh strawberries can experience the next best thing by attending one of many church-sponsored strawberry festivals held throughout the region. On any given Saturday in June, there are festivals in Sykesville, Towson, Bel Air or Westminster.

There are many ways to enjoy strawberry season. But don't hesitate. As quickly as the strawberries ripen, they also disappear. By the time the sun has reached its zenith and marks the summer solstice in late June, the little red gems will be gone for another year.

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