Archive for June, 2007

Setting Up For Strawberry Shortcake

The recipe for historically and gastronomically correct strawberry shortcake IS coming, I swear, and in plenty of time for the 4th of July ( I also swear). But in the meantime this is a heads-up that you will need 3 things that may take some looking to find.

1. Good strawberries. After giving fairly detailed directions about getting good strawberries I had to buy some ( recipe research!). Went to two farmers’ markets in search of a variety as fragrant as Karen’s. Should have gone to three; but the berries I bought were really quite good and by then market hours were almost over. Also bought supermarket plastic clamshell California ones, just for comparison and without any hope they would actually be edible. They were certainly cheap: $2.79 per quart , as opposed to $4.50 and $5.00 from the farmers – though if you costed it out per fruit they were about 30 cents each. And honesty compels me to report they were a bit sweeter than one of the local offerings. But they were far less strawberry tasting, so I’m guessing there are now “supersweet” strawberries analogous to supersweet corn, in which high sugar content develops early and does not fade but the flavor of corn is faint. And they made a substantial noise when sliced that reminded me of the sound of a good apple.

2. A genuine biscuit cutter – this shortcake is of course made with biscuits, and biscuits do not rise high and flaky unless the thick dough is cut with a tall, sharp cutter designed for the job.


Jamie MacMillan

This cutter belongs to food historian Sandy Oliver, of Islesboro, Maine, about whom there will be more one of these days. For now suffice it to say this is your model, though there is no reason to buy an antique one – a new one would really be better if it were sharper which you would think would be a no-brainer but given the quality of some modern tools…

3. Heavy Cream. Pasteurized is fine but ultra-pasteurized is not. Even I who feel strongly about this cannot say the stuff is truly dreadful but it sure as hell is second rate, and the mono and diglycerides, vegetable gums and other substances added to disguise the cooked flavor and diminished whipping power certainly don’t help. “Organic” may be marginally more healthful but usually isn’t any better otherwise; all the industrial-organic national brands are ultra-pasteurized too. Try calling around to co-ops, natural food stores, and the office of a dairy itself should there be one near you. Chefs often have access to food products not routinely retailed and old fashioned heavy cream is one of them.

Bill Bakaitis

This is raw organic cream from White Orchard Farm, in Frankfort, Maine. I asked Bill to take the picture when I went to pour some and realized it was too thick to come out of the bottle until prodded.

Coming Attractions, summer/fall

July 12 – 15, Rockland Maine : Maine Gardens, Nature and Design –

A celebration of Maine gardens, gardening, gardens in art, landscape design, flower-arranging, talks, photo-workshops, a garden fair and more (much more). Assorted large names including Patrick Chasse, Page Dickey, Nancy Harmon Jenkins and Tovah Martin. I’ll be talking about “ The Writer in the Garden” on Saturday morning. Schedule and ticket details here.

August 23 – 26, Moodus, Connecticut: 2007 Clark Rogerson Foray
( not me, Bill, but he doesn’t have a website)

The Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association’s annual big foray. Three days of walking around in beautiful parks, looking for and collecting mushrooms. Three evenings of learning what those mushrooms are – and eating the ones that are safe and delicious. Full description and reservation form here. Schedule still being set up, but we know Bill Bakaitis will be giving a talk on boletes (porcini are probably the best-known boletes, in case you were wondering).

September 14 – 16, Camden, Maine: Maine Fare

The second annual food-lovers’ extravaganza , showcasing Maine’s incredible bounty and unique culinary identity : tastings, seminars, cooking classes and demonstrations, a marketplace filled with local products and a gala opening benefit for The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, a powerhouse of support for sustainable agriculture (among their many services, an incredibly useful website). is still under re-construction but you can get a taste of it here. Schedule also under construction so all I know at this point is that I’ll be talking – and cooking! – on the subject of “Putting Food By – the key to eating well locally when the locale has a long hard winter.”

October 11, Bangor Maine: The Maine Herb Society

Illustrated talk , probably about herbs (although you never know). Details coming presently.

Getting the Best Strawberries

In the market, at pick-your-owns and in plant catalogs.

Fair warning: I’m in strawberry delirium at the moment. We (well, Bill actually) got a big bowl of them for Father’s Day from Karen, Celia’s mother, and they were the Platonic ideal: firm but tender, very juicy, flavorful, sweet, and FRAGRANT? Omigosh. They perfumed the entire kitchen all afternoon, until I made them into shortcake – a subject about which I feel strongly – recipe coming next post. Biscuits, only biscuits, do not talk to me about cake.


Karen with home-grown gift

Or don’t bother to talk about making anything. When you get strawberries this good all you need to do is eat them. The part that takes effort is acquisition.

Getting industrial strawberries is easy; like industrial tomatoes they’re available everywhere always. And all of the tomato wisdom about far tastier when fresh and local certainly applies. But with strawberries ” vine-ripened” matters far more because strawberries – unlike tomatoes – cannot continue to ripen after they leave the plant.

They do get softer as they age ( except the gigantic iron strawberries sold for chocolate-dipping). But they don’t get any sweeter or more intensely flavorful. Whatever goodness they have when they’re picked, that’s all they’ll ever have.

Yet ripe strawberries are fragile and short-lived. Result: only berries that need not travel far or change hands often can be allowed to ripen fully. And only growers who sell locally can risk growing “home garden” varieties known more for flavor than durability.

So if you crave strawberry delerium – and don’t happen to know Karen – the places to get fruit are farmers markets, pick-your-own farms, and your own back yard.


Karen got her plants from a friend and doesn’t know their name, but these look a lot like Sparkle, a home garden variety introduced in 1942 and still popular in the Northeast, the region where it does best.

At the Market: go for sprightly green calyces ( the cap of leaves at the top) and stems that are fresh-looking. Don’t be put off by small berries or berries that aren’t all the same size; many of the tastiest varieties are neither large nor uniform. Some very sweet berries are not dark red, but if they’re light it doesn’t hurt to ask for a taste. And beware of super deep color too; the berries may be so close to overripe they’ll melt before you get them home.

At Pick-your-own farms: Try to get there either at the beginning or toward the end of the day. In many places people make side money picking at these farms and selling the fruit for a small profit. They show up early; they know what they’re doing; and they’re fast. By the time they leave, a lot of the fruit that was ripe at daybreak will be leaving with them. Fortunately, they seldom come back for a second round and strawberries can ripen in a matter of hours. On hot days late afternoon can offer great picking, especially when the weather is so brutal it discourages the competition.

In the Garden: Strawberries are already among the easiest fruits to grow, and if Colony Collapse Disorder continues they’re going to be an even better bet. In contrast to most other soft fruits, strawberries don’t rely primarily on honey bees; our native wild bees pollinate a lot of them and can continue to do so – assuming, of course, our native bees are still around themselves…

A disquisition for another day. To return to our berries,

Choosing plants:

Leaving aside specialty berries like fraises des bois, there are 3 types to consider: June bearers, everbearers and day neutrals. For descriptions of individual varieties consult plant sellers like Nourse Farms and Daisy Farms.

June Bearers – might better be called “once bearers.” They make a single large crop in spring and that’s it. They’re the original “garden strawberry,” the tastiest of the large-fruited types, and the one that offers far and away the widest choice of varieties.

Everbearerstheir better name is “twice bearers,” one crop in spring and another, smaller crop in fall, with only a few berries here and there in between. Quality varies widely and is strongly climate dependant. Be sure you choose one that’s right for your region.

Day Neutrals – keep fruiting from spring to fall, with the largest and tastiest fruit often coming as the weather cools down. Berries tend to be on the small side but there are a lot when you add up a whole season’s worth.


Strawberry shortcake, made with biscuits. Recipe coming soon to a blog near you.

Heirloom Tomatoes and Terroir

Because heirloom tomatoes are delicious; because they come in so many flavors, colors, shapes and sizes and because buying the seeds helps keep regional seed companies in business, heirlooms are what we mostly grow. There are about 150 possibilities, so we try a few new ones every year. Only a few; lion’s share of the space goes to essentials like Brandywine, the tomato that (deservedly) put heirlooms on the map.

The essentials list is rich with possessives: Pruden’s Purple – Brandywine-ish, but earlier and usually smaller; Kellogg’s Breakfast – fat, juicy and orange, named for a railroad man, not Mr. Cereal; and Aunt Ruby’s German Green, which after trying many ripe-when-green tomatoes we have concluded is best.

There is also a must-have hybrid: Sun Gold, a yellow cherry tomato unmatched for sweet fruit, disease resistance and mind-bending productivity. One plant could feed the multitudes if it were happy and given free rein to grow as large as it wanted ( and if rain didn’t crack all the fruit, a very common misfortune)


left to right: Kellogg’s Breakfast, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Pruden’s Purple, White Wonder, Japanese Black Trifele. The little guys are White Currant

Where does the terroir come in? Because we grow the same varieties in both gardens but they don’t taste the same. The New York Brandywines, for instance, are sweeter than the Maine ones, while the Maine Green Grapes are swoonworthy compared to those from New York.

We’ve never tried a blindfold test and they do vary from year to year, but you can usually taste when you taste them the elusive “somewhereness” that wine writer Matt Kramer has used as a rough translation of “gout de terroir,” a staple term in winespeak. It can refer only to mineral flavors but just as often means “everything about a place that affects taste in ways that make that taste unique.”

The more literal translation is “taste of earth ( or soil),” though how and why – and if – it exists is a subject of some contention, especially in the wake of a debunking story in the New York Times ( Talk Dirt to Me) by Harold McGee
and Daniel Patterson.

To me it seems like a no-brainer, given all the ways – completely apart from the genetics of regional adaptation – that place matters to the taste of fruit: differences in soil lead to differences in nutrient uptake; differences in climate affect not only the plants themselves but also the likely assortment of pests and diseases and by extension the steps taken to combat them – or not.

The problem may be that in most cases you can’t compare growing places without comparing growers and the differences between them can easily trump everything else.

But not in our case. We are us in both places and our plants are as close to being the same plants as non-hybrid plants can be: all 70 of the seedlings we start with come from the same set of seeds and are grown by the same person at the same place (Jan MacDonald, at Barley Joe Farm in Warren Maine).


Maine babies about to hit the road for New York.

Oh, one more very important thing: we don’t make tomato wine and introduce all those variables, so my use of terroir for tomatoes can ( and no doubt will) be dismissed as apples and oranges. But if the taste of the fruit matters that little to the taste of wine, the dismissers are in a lot bigger trouble than anything I can cause.

Climate Zones and what they show

Maps that divide the country into cold-hardiness zones are the tools you love to hate. The more experience you have, the less faith you put in those numbers and yet some belief is essential; no way to predict unknown-plant survival without some guidelines, be they ever so crude.

I’ve been reading reports ( both scientific and anecdotal ) on this ever-vexing subject for about 35 years now. And for the last 15 of those years I’ve been tending two gardens, one 400 miles Northeast of the other , both of them in the same zone: 5, according to the old fashioned USDA map – or 6 if you go by the more up to date Arbor Day Foundation version . Insights gained are below.


This is just to keep you amused; it has nothing to do with climate zones except that being a daylily (Hemerocallis spp) it’ll grow almost anywhere.

Rules that help:

a) Allow for 1 zone on each side of the one you’re allotted. If the map says you are in zone 5 you can probably grow a Zone 6 plant, but on the other hand your winter may kill something that has Zone 5 as its permitted lower limit.

b) Do the same thing with plant labels; they tend to be either overcautious or overhopeful, or (on those that offer a range of zones) both.

c). Learn your garden – if it’s big enough to call a garden, it’s probably big enough to have warm and cool spots, windy and sheltered ones, and quite possibly different soils within 10 feet of one another.

Hardiness Maps that attempt to Improve things:

By refining the description of the plants

The American Horticultural Society has created a HEAT zone map, which makes a great deal of sense; most plants have death points at both ends of the thermometer. This map made its debut in 1960, but like the metric system it hasn’t made much headway.

It is used by the society’s magazine, where spicebush, for instance, is referred to as “Lindera benzoin, Zones 4-9, 8-1″. The first set of numbers are the cold zones, by the way, should you happen to run into a pair like this on a plant label somewhere and if you do please write and tell me about it.

By refining the description of the Zones:

Sunset Publishing offers – and works from – a national map that includes not only heat and cold but also length of growing season, humidity, rainfall and rainfall patterns. It is silent on the subject of soils, probably just as well given that there are 45 zones as it is.