It’s prime time for strawberries

About a month ago, we had our duvet dry-cleaned and shrink-wrapped for storage as we do every April. Then, a week later, I busted it out. The cold weather didn’t let up, and our drafty old house wasn’t getting any warmer.

This long, cool and mostly dry spring may have kept us in blankets and sweaters longer than we’d like. But according to local growers, it has made for the best strawberry season in years.

“I can’t pick them fast enough,” says Julie Shaffer, who uses her strawberry plants as ground cover along the sidewalk fronting her Stone Mountain home. “Now, I’ve planted two more strawberry beds because they’ve sent out so many babies.”

Celia Barss, who runs Woodland Gardens Organic Produce, a farm in Winterville, says this year has been extraordinary. "On our first week of harvest, we went from picking 10 flats one day to 60 flats three days later. They started ripening very quickly."

Barss says the long, cool spring encouraged more bud development, and more flowers mean more berries. On a recent Saturday morning, she was among a half dozen farmers selling red, juicy berries at the Freedom Farmers Market on the Carter Center grounds. She had so many berries stacked up that she was offering a discount for customers who bought them by the flat.

Steve O'Shea, who runs the sustainable 3 Porch Farm in Comer (near Athens), was also selling berries at the farmers market as well as his honey-sweetened strawberry push pops. (The latter have yet to conquer Atlanta, but these pops have become something of a sensation among Athens-area toddlers.)

Like many Southern berry farmers, he has had the most success with the Chandler variety, which are dark-fleshed, very juicy, tart and highly productive. When you pick them at peak ripeness, the acid and sugars find an ideal balance. Yet, he is partial to the paler, firmer Sweet Charlie variety, which has what he calls a “pearlike sweetness.” Both are having banner years due, in his estimation, to the relatively dry spring.

I’ve found that the Sweet Charlies keep more or less in the fridge for a day or two, while the Chandlers tend to soften enough that you’ll want to macerate them rather than eating them out of hand.

Let’s face it, when berries are this good, you really don’t want to do anything beyond stuffing them aimlessly in your mouth, preferably while sitting in a hammock with a good book and a glass of dry rose. But if the berries aren’t at their peak — either overripe and mushy or underripe and acidic — then you’ll want to macerate them.

The recipe your mother taught you most likely involves some sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice and perhaps a little finely minced lemon zest. This is what came to our family table along with a store-bought angel food cake and a can of Reddi-wip when I was growing up.

I loved it but almost never prepare berries like that anymore. I’m wild about the macerated strawberry recipe that Italians call “pazzo” — crazy. You hull and halve the berries, toss them with a good glug of syrupy aged balsamic vinegar and then finish them with a grinding of black pepper. It is fantastic, with the interplay of peppery, floral and fruit flavors you look for in a syrah wine. You can eat the berries as is, or with a dollop of mascarpone cheese if you’re fancy. I prefer the less fancy option of good vanilla ice cream.

In the south of France, cooks like to macerate strawberries in dry red wine, according to cookbook author Paula Wolfert. Just a quarter cup of wine will handle two pints of berries nicely, and if you want to add a tablespoon or two of sugar, you should. Wolfert also likes a grinding of black pepper, which has a special affinity for these berries.

Ferran Adrià, the legendary Spanish chef, often served macerated strawberries in season as a dessert with the staff meal at his restaurant El Bulli, according to his book “The Family Meal: Home Cooking With Ferran Adrià.” To make his version, you caramelize 3/4 of a cup of granulated sugar in a heavy saucepan until it is quite dark, stop the caramelization with 1/4 cup of water, stir the mixture until it smooths, and then stir in 1/3 cup of red wine vinegar. Chill this mixture until it’s syrupy, and you’re ready to toss with sliced strawberries.

Shaffer, who is on the national board for Slow Food USA and also leads culinary tours of Europe, won’t be doing anything so involved with her front-yard berries during this terrific season. She’s just trying to keep up. “We’ve been freezing so many, drinking so many smoothies and having friends come over to help themselves,” she says.