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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND

Fruit of Good Fortune

After starting out wild, it then found a place in the French court, film and song. Now it's said to be a blast in the kitchen.

May 16, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The J.M. Smucker Co., a founding sponsor of the California Strawberry Festival Saturday and Sunday in Oxnard, probably would wish to disclaim any responsibility for one of the popular fruit's newfound--and truly obscure--properties.

The World Wide Web has a site explaining how to make a blowtorch from a Kellogg's Strawberry Pop-Tart with real Smucker's fruit, using only the pastry and your toaster. Apparently it has something to do with jamming the thing in the toaster, until flames literally begin to shoot out of the pastry. That's what I call Yankee ingenuity, but since it would be incendiary journalism to say anything further on the subject, feel free to find the Web page without official help.

Personally, I plan to put my strawberries in a good pie crust.

It was back in my college days that I began my love affair with the astringently sweet berry. I grew up within shouting distance of the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts, and during childhood, my exposure to strawberries was limited to jam, ice cream and jujubes. It was during an introductory film class that I first saw the Ingmar Bergman classic "Wild Strawberries" starring Victor Sjostrom. In the summer of '70, I traveled to Sweden, with visions of red berries dancing inside my head.

Soon foraging the Swedish countryside for smaltron, the Swedish word for wild strawberries, became a daily ritual for me. In the evening, when the weather was cool, I feasted on my bounty with densely whipped Swedish cream procured from a farm just outside Stockholm. Nothing from the hand of any chef or grandmother could possibly surpass the pleasure derived from those pale red, thimble-sized berries of my youth, but a basket of fresh Ventura County strawberries comes awfully close.

Just what is this beloved red fruit we celebrate this weekend, and how did Ventura County become a strawberry mecca? The recipe involves a dash of destiny, an understanding of history and plain good fortune. The lush, opulent California strawberry is the fruit of planned evolution, perilous adventure, great botanical minds, intrepid farmers and clever businessmen.

Food historian Raymond Sokolov, writing in his seminal "Why We Eat What We Eat," said it best: "The strawberry epitomizes the international hybrid history of foods we now take for granted." The history of the fruit can be summed up thusly.

In the early part of the 18th century, wild strawberries were the only ones Europeans knew. The herbaceous perennials grew in loamy fields, or in Alpine regions, where the tiny berry was carried on a slightly higher stalk. Encyclopedist and philosopher Denis Diderot, in an oft-quoted phrase, described the strawberries of his era as being like the "tip of a wet nurse's breast."

Then in 1712, a French naval officer named Frezier (from which we get fraise--the French word for strawberry) smuggled a type of strawberry known as the sand strawberry (fragaria chiloensis) from the Chilean coast back to Europe. Frezier gave his plunder to the famous French botanist Bernard de Jussieu, who subsequently bred them for the court, dazzling the royals in the process.

In the latter part of the 18th century, though, the real breakthrough was made. It was around the time of the French Revolution that the botanist Duchesne crossbred these berries with another strawberry from the New World (fragaria virginia), producing large, sweet berries, bursting with juice. And voila, the strawberry craze was born, resulting in the fruit eventually being brought back to these shores for more serious cultivation.

At the turn of this century, a breed known as the Shasta strawberry was born in California, a plump, large berry similar in color and texture to many of the varietals of California strawberries today. California, it turns out, with its warm sunny days and cool foggy nights, has just what it takes to make a terrific strawberry. That's why it is no accident that, according to Christina Glynn of the California Strawberry Commission, approximately 80% of the country's strawberries are grown in our state.

The Oxnard area is especially blessed, even though it took until the mid '50s for it to jump on the agricultural bandwagon. Oxnard is classified as one of five growing regions in California, the others being Watsonville-Salinas, Santa Maria, San Diego and Orange County. Strawberries in Ventura County have grown from a yard-sized industry--a paltry seven acres in 1935--to the $120-million plus (from a statewide crop estimated at $608 million for 1996) and multi-thousand-acre business it is today.

What gives California such a huge advantage over other states is our long growing season. Today, says Glynn, "You can eat top quality California berries from February to November." This year, according to Glynn, Ventura County growers will harvest 22 million trays of the fruit, each tray (or flat, the terms are interchangeable) containing 12 one-pint baskets. How many Pop-Tarts do you suppose that is?

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