What mothers will do: My grandmother, wearing a house dress and a straw hat, would hunt down wild strawberry plants and pick enough of those miniscule fruits (the size of a baby’s fingernail) to make strawberry shortcake for my father’s July birthday. Just because he liked those little berries best. A great reader, she may have known the ancient Romans had wild strawberries 2,200 years ago, but she never mentioned that.
It takes a lot of picking to get even a pint of the wild ones. If they’re ripe enough to eat, they are fragile enough to crush, so some people pick them with long stems on. Whatever the method, patience is the virtue most needed.
At Mountain View Farm in Lanesboro, however, it takes little time to pick a quart of berries from strawberry fields that lie on a sunny slope that obviously is a perfect place to raise the much-loved berries.
As you make the turn toward the steep parking lot shortly after 8 a.m., a crowd of hunched or hunkered down pickers are already out there filling their baskets. We were the lazy people, opting to purchase a heaped-up flat of sweet-smelling, gleaming berries rather than stoop in the field. Last year we took the easy way out because of the recent installation of a new knee; this year, it was just time-saving and saving ourselves from sun and sweat.
Whatever anyone wants to say about this year’s weather, it was apparently perfect for strawberries, which appear only at the end of June and beginning of July. These are the best ever, some of them measuring more than two inches across, no green tips, ultimate sweetness and aroma. (It’s never good to buy strawberries in the supermarket without sniffing — no smell translates into tasteless.) These berries scented the car better than any hanging doo-dad designed for that purpose.
The late Judy Leab, back in the days when Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock was our strawberry-picking place, knew how much my husband Milt liked to pick humongous berries. She called them the “king berries,” the first on the plant. So she’d call him to let him know the kings were on their thrones in Ioka’s fields, and he should come quick. And he did. A favorite memory for the grandchildren was the day we went to Ioka early, the kids wanting to stop at the mini golf on the way and being turned down. On the way back, still well short of noon, mini golf was on, and then they were eyeing signs for ice cream on the same property. They knew ice cream wasn’t morning fare, so they were quite surprised when I asked what kind they wanted. Ever since, at least in Richmond, the rule is “Grandma says we can have ice cream in the morning.” And even as young adults, they sometimes do.
Milt grew up liking those sweet, yellow cake-like things for his strawberry shortcake. My mother abhorred them, always making from-scratch baking powder biscuits — dropped, not shaped. She’d split them, put a dab of butter on, load half with strawberries, put the other half on top and cover that with strawberries and real whipped cream. Milt converted.
Five little jars of strawberry jam are ready for the freezer and will be followed by another five within a day or so. When grandson Sam was perhaps three — he’s now 26 — we made jam together, and he proudly showed off jars labeled Sam’s Jam. I wonder if he remembers that — I certainly do. Nothing like squishing berries with a masher and standing on a stool to stir when you’re a toddler, to say nothing of sneaking a finger into the bowl. I did the stove part. Together, we made a great mess and good jam.