People tend to think of strawberry season as being short and sweet.
This year, it’s going to be really short.
And sweet? Well, it’s getting there.
The heart of strawberry season in Maine usually stretches between Father’s Day and the Fourth of July. This year, the crop is peaking early, and there’s some doubt as to whether there will be many berries left in southern Maine by the time Independence Day rolls around, especially for people who want to pick a lot for jams and for freezing.
“My advice to people is to get out a little earlier this year to get what you want, and certainly call the farmer ahead of time to see how things are going,” David Handley, a small-fruit specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said in an interview after last week’s stretch of hot weather. “I’ve been out in the fields for the last couple of days, and I’ve been amazed how two days of temperatures approaching the 90s will ripen strawberries so quickly.”
The season started a little early as well, anywhere from a week ahead of schedule to just a day or two, depending on the location of the farm.
Handley said the way things are going, a lot of growers, especially in southern Maine, are going to be lucky to have ripe fruit available for picking on the Fourth.
Edward Ahlquist, owner of Ahlquist Farm Stand in Gorham, only has about an acre planted in strawberries. He opened to the public June 15, and a week later the berries were “fast dissipating.” He said he’s already gotten calls from larger growers wanting to know if he has extra berries to sell.
“I’m not sure one day to the next whether we’ll be having berries,” Ahlquist said.
Earl Bunting, owner of Doles Orchard in Limington, said on Friday he thinks his strawberry fields had about another two weeks left.
“It started early, and it will definitely end early,” Bunting said. “It’s going to be a fairly compressed season. The weather has kind of conspired against us.”
Handley said the season actually would have peaked even earlier, had it not been for the long stretch of rain we received in the spring. All that rain basically put the brakes on berry ripening.
Bill Spiller of Spiller Farm in Wells said he opened his three acres of strawberries to pickers on June 7, which was “very early.” He said he hopes to have berries available for picking through this weekend.
Maxwell’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth opened June 19.
“The usual is three weeks plus of picking, and I just don’t see that happening,” said Bill Bamford, owner of Maxwell’s. “Unfortunately, it’s now or never.”
Some farmers have been growing late-ripening varieties of strawberries that could help extend the short season a little bit, Handley said.
“Up until a few years ago, we really were hurting for good late-ripening varieties that did well here in Maine,” he said. “But with some recent introductions from New York and especially Canada, we’ve now got a couple of varieties that will keep the season going a little bit longer. Usually these would be a bonus for us at the tail end of a good season, but this year I think they’re going to kind of be coming in when we need them.”
What about the quality of this year’s berries? They started off not so tasty, but by last week were starting to sweeten up.
“The good new is that with this sunshine, I’ve seen the flavor improving over the last few days,” Handley said. “The flavor hasn’t been bad, but it’s been a little bit mild because sunshine is what makes plants make sugar.”
What to do with all those sweet berries coming our way?
We asked three chefs to share their ideas for creative strawberry recipes that go beyond the usual strawberry shortcake. (Recipes at right.) If you’re looking for a dessert that’s not too sweet but still showcases the natural sweetness of strawberries, try the strawberry and finger banana fritters, served with vanilla bean ice cream and mosto sauce, created by chef Carmen Gonzalez of Carmen at the Danforth Inn in Portland.
In true Top Chef Masters style (she was a contestant on Season 2), the chef created this dessert especially for the Portland Press Herald in just two hours’ time. It turned out so well she is considering adding it to the menu at her new restaurant in the inn.
“Each fritter has a whole strawberry in it,” Gonzalez said.
The hot fritters retain a hint of the Jamaican beer Gonzalez puts in the batter. The mosto sauce drizzled over them is a Spanish sauce made with dry red wine, a splash of apple cider, sugar and a cinnamon stick. The flavorful sauce has the consistency of maple syrup.
Erin Lynch, the baker at Rosemont Market and Bakery in Portland, contributed a strawberry crepe cake inspired by gateau de crepes. It’s a lighter version that Lynch promises isn’t a multi-day project and doesn’t even require turning on the oven. The crepe cake she made for us was constructed with about 25 crepes and tasted like summer.
Our third recipe comes from Tim Labonte, the new executive chef at the Portland Harbor Hotel. It’s a maple panna cotta with balsamic grilled Maine strawberries and crisp rosemary oats. Labonte serves the panna cotta in a Mason jar, a nice little nod to the season.
“Maple syrup and strawberries go great together,” Labonte said. “What I’ve done with these strawberries, though, is I added a twist by cutting them and tossing them with a little oil, and then I put them on the grill real quick. I put a perforated pan on the grill, so the pan was hot, because Maine strawberries are just so fragile. They’re so juicy and plump. If you cook them for any length of time, they kind of disintegrate. So I wanted it to be quick. I had my pan hot, and I just threw the seasoned strawberries on the grill so the smoke would come up on the strawberries and add that smoky flavor, that outdoorsy flavor of the summer.”
The panna cotta is creamy and sweet, and the strawberries do indeed have a hint of smoke flavor. The rosemary-dusted oat clusters add a little crunch. The oat clusters and the panna cotta can be made a day ahead, Labonte said.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]