Reading about most of the email conversations I have with PR reps would make your eyes bleed from boredom. They have a product they want bloggers to write about and because most of them are well outside the purview of this blog I politely decline. Sometimes I elaborate a bit more about why I won’t be covering the product they represent and this usually leads to a brief back-and-forth.
I had one of these more in-depth conversations with someone at Harbinger Communications who represents California Strawberries. From this I promised to compare Ontario strawberries to the ones from the golden state as soon as our came in season.
Ontario farmers have planted long-bearing strains of strawberries so that the season now extends through August and into the start of September. With more time to work with this can just be considered a first test, to be repeated more formally in the near future. I’m still working out the kinks in the methodology so don’t take any of these results as final or necessarily objective.
Source: Off the top of my head strawberries are the first fruit that appears in Toronto farmer’s markets in the late spring so many vendors are happy to sell them–and sometimes charge an exorbitant $5.50 or $6 for a litre container. Buying directly from the farmers is no guarantee of quality. The best strawberries I had this year (2011 has generally been quite disappointing) were purchased–on a casual recommendation from Eric Vellend–from Ted Thorpe’s booth at Wychwood Market. That being said the sourest, most insipid and watery strawberries I’ve had this year came from another vendor at Wychwood.
To avoid these extremes and to have the test mimic the experience of the largest and most representative group of shoppers I bought both the Ontario (1 litre) and California (2 pounds) samples from the Forest Hill Loblaws.
Appearance: We eat with our eyes first we’re told so I thought it important to include a visual criteria to the judging. I choose two berries from each container, sliced one, left the other whole and presented them on white paper plates labeled “A” and “B”.
Not all judges kept their opinions to themselves (general statements like “we all know what strawberries are supposed to look like” were made) and the votes of some other judges may have been swayed. The visual sample plates were probably prepared too far ahead of time and because they soaked up juices these paper plates were probably not optimal.
As my brother pointed out there is also no way to tell whether I chose the best or most representative pieces from each sample and could have been biased in my selection.
From the eleven judges the Ontario samples were overwhelmingly preferred. When I run the trial again I don’t think I’ll include a separate visual round but might make it a category in which judges can award points.
Taste: The rest of the strawberries were hulled, sliced and sprinkled with a teaspoon of granulated white sugar and a quarter teaspoon of vanilla extract. (Both strawberry samples ended up weighing almost the same amount after the moldy ones were discarded from the bottom of the California package, and received the same amount of sugar and vanilla.)
The strawberries were left to macerate for about an hour-and-a-half while we made and ate dinner. They were served with a shortcake made from the recipe in Earth to Table and some lightly-sweetened, whipped cream. I reversed the designation this time–so that the sample that was “A” for the visual test was now “B”. This caused significant confusion when some started eating (and voting on) theirs before I had fully explained the procedure. This is another level of complexity that will be avoided by eliminating the visual test.
Because they are firmer and (in my opinion) have a less-intense strawberry taste and aroma the sugar on the California strawberries remained distinct and could be more easily tasted. Many did not like this, a few did.
Again the Ontario strawberries were overwhelmingly preferred. When I run a final test I’ll scale back the amount of sugar slightly and leave the strawberries to macerate for a bit longer.
I admit that these tests were flawed and note that that’s a particular problem given that the preliminary results confirmed my stated bias. I’m going to run the trial again before the Ontario strawberry season ends. Look for that post soon.