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Red, Ripe and Renegade: Berries That Break All the Rules

The berries are grown organically, despite initial skepticism from Mrs. Gean’s father, who founded the farm and swore that the unconventional approach wouldn’t work. And each section of the field is harvested only once every five days, to give the fruit enough time to reach its flavorful peak. Large-scale growers typically pick every three days.

Ripeness is all: When the berries run out, they run out, because the Geans would rather send a customer home empty-handed than with a berry that doesn’t meet their standards. That accounts for the lines that form an hour before the area’s biggest market, in Santa Monica, opens for business.

The farm, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary and more than 30 years at the markets, has been a shrine for generations of berry lovers, both professional chefs and customers who ate their first berry as toddlers and now push strollers of their own. Bucking tradition has worked out well: Last year, the Geans sold 500,000 pounds of strawberries.

Photo

Molly and Rick Gean own Harry’s Berries, which began in 1967 with Mrs. Gean’s father, Harry Iwamoto.

Credit
Amy Dickerson for The New York Times

Perfection doesn’t come cheap — a pint costs $8 — but the lines are long even when berries are plentiful, as they are now at the start of the peak season.

Nancy Silverton, the award-winning Los Angeles chef and author who owns the Mozza restaurant group with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, has been buying Harry’s berries since she tasted her first one in 1989. Jeremy Fox, the executive chef at Rustic Canyon restaurant in Santa Monica and the author of “On Vegetables,” won’t use anything else.

Mr. Fox sometimes identifies the berry’s provenance on the menu, for a dish like the strawberry Pavlova with yogurt and black pepper. Ms. Silverton, on the other hand, assumes that by now most of her customers know exactly where the berries come from.

Their East Coast counterparts, from Philadelphia to Boston, jockey for an allotment from a far smaller shipped harvest. They have included the New York restaurants Wildair, Upland and Le Bernardin; a few retailers — like Eataly, owned by Mr. Batali and Mr. Bastianich; the online grocer FreshDirect; and the Doughnut Plant, which features strawberry-forward doughnuts in the spring.

Ms. Silverton and Mr. Fox rhapsodized about the fuller, sweeter berry taste, the juice-dribbling texture (compared with the chalky innards of some commercial berries) and an aroma that wafts toward marketgoers before they reach the stall. When they ran out of superlatives, they both settled on a single adjective: “red,” summing up all a strawberry should be.

The farm didn’t start out this way. In 1967, Mrs. Gean’s father, Harry Iwamoto, a Japanese immigrant, leased 120 acres in Oxnard and planted what the Geans refer to as…

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