The first sign of summer is ripe for the picking and signals warm, lazy days best topped with whip cream. Sliced, baked or eaten whole, strawberries are summer's sweet reward for New Englanders.
Fresh strawberries evoke sweet memories for a lot of people. Natasha Littrell, co-owner of Crazy Russian Girls Neighborhood Bakery in Bennington, Vt., will even attest to strawberries playing a major part in her love life. While carefully icing a wedding cake, she was quick to add that it would be adorned with strawberries.
"Strawberries are the fruit of love" Littrell said with a laugh. "On our first date, my future husband, Matt, and I went hiking. He was so proud to have made lunch, and offered me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Normally, I'm not a huge PB & J fan, but the 'J' was strawberry. Well, he won my heart right there."
After tending to the wedding cake, Littrell said she would bake this reporter her special Russian strawberry tea bread. It's a family recipe brought from the Old World and now periodically enjoyed by her customers during prime New England strawberry season — which is just beginning.
Littrell said there are so many desserts that use strawberries, and attested to their popular appeal.
"There's no question about it," Littrell said. "Look, it's a sign that school's out. The weather's finally warming up. The gardens are in. And that only means one thing: Bring on the strawberries!"
Several miles north, along Route 7A in Shaftsbury, Vt., Andrew Knafel, owner of Clear Brook Farm, seemed to channel much of Littrell's passion for the ultimate herald of summer.
Knafel and his staff fielded calls and patron questions asking when the popular organic farm will open its "Pick Your Own Strawberries" season.
"We're almost there, and probably going to open the fields to pickers very soon," Knafel said. "We did have some odd spells this spring with warm and cold weather back and forth that may have delayed things a few days, but I'd say we're pretty much on schedule."
Clear Book Farm, Knafel continued, rotates a number of fields each year to accommodate strawberries, and so always has about an acre and a quarter available to the public in mid- to late June.
Knafel said strawberries tend to be healthy year in and year out, and it's typically fluctuations in climate that may cause them problems. Since Clear Brook strawberries are organically grown, weeding becomes an issue the farm must monitor.
When out picking, Knafel said he recommends two things to visiting pickers.
"The first is to watch where you're stepping," Knafel said. "The strawberry rows are a little tight, and even our folks working in the fields have to be careful not to trample some berries. The other thing is to know the right strawberry to pick. The best ones are red all the way to the tip."
With the picking season just days away, yet only about two weeks long, Knafel said the farm will see a steady stream of people to pick their own once the fields are open. He also echoed Littrell's earlier assessment of how this fruit seems to stand out in the heart and minds of the public.
"There's no doubt, when folks are picking their own strawberries, that means one very good thing," he said. "Summer is here."
To find a nearby farm to PYO (pick your own) strawberries, visit pickyourown.org for a state-by-state listing
Russian Strawberry Tea Bread
Courtesy Natasha Garder Littrell
Stir together the initial three ingredients:
½ cup softened butter
1 cup sugar
3 ounces cream cheese
Beat until fluffy.
Then add in and mix:
1 teaspoon vanilla
Then add in the four items of dry mix:
2 cups all-purpose flour (can substitute with any store-bought gluten-free brand)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
Finally, add and mix by hand until incorporated into 9 x 5 in loaf pan
½ cup milk
1 ½ cup sliced strawberries
Bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes, start checking early. The bread is done when a knife comes out clean. Should be moist like zucchini bread.