CHEF’S TABLE: Nothing like a freshly picked strawberry

Georgian College cooking students visited a local strawberry field as part of the school’s unique ‘Field to Fork Discovery Tour’

“The strawberries that grow in the gardens are plump and juicy. But as far as wise men know, the sweetest springs from the vine of the woods. No need for a silver bowl or spoon, sugar or spices or cream, the wild berry is picked in June by the flowing stream. –Robert Graves

In the month of June, the full moon is known as the “strawberry moon”. Name given by the Algonquin tribes, the appearance signaled when fruit ripening was at its peak and ready to be picked.

I like strawberries. They have a special place in my food memorabilia collection. From watching my grandmother pick wild Muskoka strawberries to make a table full of jam to sharing my son’s first taste of sweet summer berries in the field. These little bits of happiness come to mind at this time of year.

A member of the rose family, strawberries are native to North America. Indigenous peoples used them in many dishes and were one of the first delicacies available to be picked in early summer. Early North Americans didn’t bother to grow strawberries because they were so plentiful in the wild.

In the 1600s, North American settlers returned propagated strawberry plants to Europe to cultivate. Another variety was also found in Central and South America, and this is what the conquistadors called “frutila” or Chilean white strawberries.

The plants can last five to six years with careful cultivation, but most farmers use them as an annual crop, replanting them each year. Strawberries need both a male plant and a female plant to produce fruit.

For me, strawberries are best eaten fresh. I mean who can argue with a glass of crisp bubbly paired with a luscious ruby ​​red berry. But they lend themselves to all kinds of dishes, both fresh and cooked.

Fresh pies and homemade double-crust pies are common ways to cook them, but muffins, jams, preserves, and sauces are all good choices. In our house, we have enjoyed fresh berries in savory salads and as a key ingredient for our morning smoothies. I make an excellent Strawberry Red Wine Sangria – a perfect libation for the back deck on a sunny summer afternoon.

Our local strawberry growing season is usually short, but different varieties make it possible to extend this season. But don’t worry, strawberries can easily be frozen to eat any time of the year. It’s as simple as washing and peeling them, laying them out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper so they don’t touch each other, and freezing them until solid. Once frozen, you transfer them to a resealable, freezer-safe zipper bag and store them for up to a year.

Since taking our son Tyler for his first picking and tasting experience 15 years ago, our family has made the trip to our berry picking spot of choice and it’s only a few minutes.

Barrie Hill Farms is a second generation family farm, owned and operated by the Gervais family. They grow over 200 acres of fruits and vegetables with over 25 acres of strawberries.

Barrie Hill is one of the largest and, in my opinion, best managed strawberry picking operations. They grow several varieties of strawberries for pickers. Annapolis, Jewel and Albion are available and all have unique qualities that set them apart. It’s an amazing sight to behold when the tractors are working and the fields are filled with happy families picking berries.

I first met Morris Gervais when I was involved with Simcoe County Farm Fresh as a local chef supporting local growers. Farmer Morris and the team at Barrie Hill Farms are big supporters of local food and sustainability in our area and have worked diligently for many years on many initiatives started here in Simcoe County.

My job is a little different now. I’m not the restaurant chef who buys local produce and creates these authentic dining experiences. I work from a different side – one that I hope will help guide the next generation of young cooks and chefs to be inspired by the foods we find locally.

As a chef involved with Georgian College’s hospitality programs, I work side-by-side with our students as they begin the journey to become our next kitchen managers, dining room captains, cooks and bakers.

Supporting local food producers and encouraging ‘field to fork’ education has always been a big part of who I am as a chef and it’s a real privilege to be able to share that with students.

This summer, with the support of our hospitality department and an enthusiastic group of culinary students, we set up an after-school excursion project called the “Field to Fork Discovery Tour”.

The goal is to take our students out and visit three different agricultural producers in the area and see what they do, how they do it and how it impacts what we can do as cooks.

Barrie Hill Farms was a natural fit for our first stop. So one Monday afternoon several weeks ago, just as berry picking season was opening, myself and several students went out to check on the 2022 harvest.

The strawberries did not disappoint! It was truly amazing to watch them take time and see what it was like. There were lots of great questions and our conversations covered many food and agriculture related topics.

Many of our students have never seen anything quite like a pick-your-own farm or had the opportunity to taste a fresh berry straight from the field. It was intriguing for them to see how our local producers transformed the farm into a festival atmosphere.

My favorite part… Well, it was just like with Tyler 15 years ago. I got to watch each of them pick and taste that first berry and see the spark of discovery.

Now bring the raspberries and blueberries!

For more information on Barrie Hill Farms, check out:

Daniel Clements is chief technologist at the School of Hospitality and Tourism at Georgian College.

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