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CHEF'S TABLE: Strawberry season unlocks 'ruby red treasures'

'There really is no better experience that the taste of a fresh-in-the-field Ontario strawberry, still warm from the sun and perfectly ripe,' says food columnist
Barrie Hill Farms is set to kick off strawberry season with its annual Strawberry Festival on Saturday, June 25 and Sunday, June 26.

"Strawberries! Fruit from the heart." — Anthony T. Hincks

Sweet summer has arrived! This week brings us the summer solstice and the peak of summer sun.

It also sees the start of one of my favourites — pick-your-own strawberries. Although many of our local producers have already been picking and selling, it's finally time to open the fields and invite eager pickers out to fill their baskets.

Our own small patch in the Georgian College Garden is starting to put out a few berries, but nothing like a visit to one of Simcoe County's time-tested producers.

There really is no better experience that the taste of a fresh-in-the-field Ontario strawberry, still warm from the sun and perfectly ripe.

For me, picking strawberries carries so many great family memories — from getting to go out with my grandma and brothers to pick heaping baskets, to taking my young son out for his first taste and day in the field.

Not to mention sharing the fun and festive activity with some of our international students and seeing them get hooked on our ruby red treasures. Who knew such a small, heart-shaped berry could pack in so many emotions and cherished moments.

Valued as one of the first fruits to ripen in season, they provide an excellent source of vitamin C and, according to the ancient Romans, many medicinal qualities. Strawberries have earned their place in the culinary history books.

According to Foodland Ontario, our producers have several varieties to choose from in growing. Veestar and Annapolis are the earliest-ripening strain available at pick-your-own operations, followed by the Cavendish, Governor Simcoe, Kent, Startime, G19, MicMac and Honey Eye, which are popular mid-season varieties for both pick-your-own and retail sales.

Researchers have found seeds in Europe that show strawberries existed in prehistoric times. The wild fruit was originally picked for its medicinal value. The leaves would be boiled and made into poultices, and the fruit prescribed as a remedy for "the redness and heat of the face."

Historical records show that Jacques Cartier reported that he discovered "vast patches" of wild strawberries along the St. Lawrence River in 1534. True agricultural cultivation of the fruit began in 17th-century England and moved across the ocean by the 1800's in North America.

There are so many recipes and simple ways for a chef to be inspired by this humble berry. One of my personal favourites is a classic strawberry jam. Now I can’t beat my Gramma Heidi’s Wild Strawberry jam, which is nothing less than a jar of pure love, but I have an easy-to-make recipe that helps capture some of that summer sweetness to savour year-round.

This simple homemade strawberry jam recipe is great in the fact it uses only fresh strawberries, lemon juice and sugar instead of pectin to make the strawberry jam set. The sugar and lemon juice work together with the natural pectin already found in strawberries and lemon to make the strawberry jam set. Lemon juice also helps prevent the growth of bacteria.

I love this recipe because it’s fast. Only about 20 minutes and tastes amazing.

To make a batch you will need:

16 oz. strawberries, hulled and coarsely chopped
3/4 cup of sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice

In a heavy bottom saucepan, mix strawberries, sugar, and lemon juice.
Stir over medium-low heat until the sugar is dissolved.
Increase heat to medium-high and bring mixture to a rolling boil.
Stir frequently mashing the strawberries as you stir, continuing to boil, until jam is thickened and bubbles completely cover the surface of the jam. (This should take about 10 minutes.)
Transfer jam to a jar and let cool to room temperature.
Seal jars and store in refrigerator for about 10 days, or freeze.

This batch makes about one and three-quarter cups.

If you have a candy thermometer when the jam reaches 220 F, it’s ready.
If you want a less chunky jam, you can process fruit in a food processor before cooking or use an immersion blender while fruit cooks.
If you use frozen berries, thaw them first, or you will need to allow for extra cooking time since you will be cooking from frozen.

That’s it! No pectin, no water and no extras. Making jam is super simple. All it takes is a bit of time stirring your pot on the stove.

To keep your jam for longer, you can freeze it right in the jar. Just make certain that you leave some space at the top as it will expand a tiny bit when freezing. This way, you can make several jars in batches and just pull one from the freezer to thaw when you’re running low.

This recipe is also perfect for water bath canning.

Once opened, you should try and use the jar of jam within 10 to 14 days. Sealed and unopened, your homemade jam should keep in the fridge between one to three months. In the freezer, it should last about a year.

I really do love strawberry season. It’s a great excuse to get out, get some sun and enjoy the true terroir our great county. Here are a few of our local fields ripe and ready for you to visit:

Barrie Hill Farms, 2935 Barrie Hill Rd., Springwater Township — Billed as “southern Ontario farm destination for excellent berry picking,” pick-your-own and ready picked options are available and there is a market onsite. Berry picking has been a tradition at this farm for more than 40 years. For more information, visit The farm is hosting its annual Strawberry Festival this weekend on Saturday and Sunday.

Harris Farms, 3216 George Johnston Rd., Springwater Township — The strawberry fields are alive with fruit, with picking season opening shortly. Harris Farms is a family farm with four generations of farmers who care for the produce and animals raised. Call 705-725-2023 for details.

Ego’s Coulson Ridge Farm, 82 Horseshoe Valley Rd. E., Oro-Medonte Township — Pick-your-own strawberries started June 21. The facility is open Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. Children must be accompanied by an adult and pets are not allowed in the berry patch. Further details are available at my heart to yours, I hope that you and your family get a chance to spend some time and bottle your own sunshine this season.

Happy picking!

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Daniel Clements

About the Author: Daniel Clements

In his bi-weekly Chef's Table column, Daniel will be looking at everything from local crops and trends in the business to seasonal delights and the local restaurant scene
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