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Strawberry Comparison

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.

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  1. I gotta know: Are the Ontario strawbs the ones on the left?

  2. Sheryl says:

    Imma say yes, Sarah… the early June varietals have almost no white in the centre, while the California ones tend to be quite white.

    Glad to hear the local ones were preferred, David.

  3. Bonita says:

    I’ve been quite disappointed with the market strawberries this year. Every one I bought were watery and tasteless…definitely not worth the money I paid for. That being said, best strawberries I had this season were the ones I picked myself at a farm up north.

  4. Jonathan C says:

    California strawberries destined for long-distance shipping are picked prior to ripening so they don’t go bad on the trip. The best strawberries I’ve ever eaten were bought from a fruit stand in California. They were the same size as the giant ones we get in store, but were fully ripe, and sweet to the point of tasting almost like strawberry jam. They are still firm due to the hot and dry climate.

    Unfortunately for us, the problem with California strawberries is that the source is just too far away.

  5. Erica says:

    Why did you decide to flavour the berries before tasting rather than just having people try them plain?

    I have also been really disappointed with this year’s offerings. I was at the Liberty Village market on the weekend and refused to pay $6 for a pint of soggy looking berries.

  6. Al Hunter says:

    Yes, you have to keep the variables under control for a good judging.
    But I would rather the tasting had been done without the addition of refined sugar and vanilla.
    We all know that restaurant food relies on sugar and salt to make it tasty.
    I had a single, amazingly sweet berry from my neighbour’s back yard (yeah only one this year) and I bought a quart of American organic berries that were only edible with sugar. How to compare?

  7. foodwithlegs says:

    Sarah and Sheryl: You’re right that the ones on the left with the darker centres are from Ontario.

    Bonita and Jonathan: “Closer to the source the better” is the received wisdom that I wanted to test. We can’t all live in California or find the time and transportation for u-pick so I wanted to be sure to test a widely available option. Also, I think it likely that the local strawberries that are distributed by major grocery are neither the very best or very worst out there.

    Erica and Al: I thought about not including the sugar (and as mentioned will think about scaling it back in a final test) but decided in its favour as a way of recreated what I think most people do with strawberries. Sugar pulls the water out of the ‘berries and that creates the sauce that makes strawberry shortcake so great. My inclination is that the test is more natural and useful (though admittedly less controlled) this way.

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