“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, dear,” my maternal grandmother told me over and over again when I was growing up in the Midwest. Grandma, may she rest in peace, always had berry patches in her backyard for pies to please the most hard-hearted male guest, but if she could have seen the scale and abundance of Connecticut berry farms, she would probably, as we used to say, have fainted dead away. Prairies are not made for berries; woodlands are. Since it’s true that the way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach, too, I’ve developed a passion for the annual ritual of visiting local pick-your-own farms for strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries.
The argument for going to pick-your-own farms, when one has the time, is unassailable. It does not get more local than this, unless, like my Grandma, you want to grow your own (another unassailable idea but beyond the scope of this article). Berries in season are at their peak of freshness and nadir of price, and one also has the satisfaction of knowing that one is supporting farmers in one’s community. There’s the mild exercise involved, the conversation sporadically interrupted by someone’s sneaking a berry into his or her mouth, and the stand-up comedy in competing with others for “the perfect berry” amidst acres and acres of already perfect berries. Most important, though, to my way of thinking, is the sense of connection that only comes from being personally involved in the harvest.
There are many pick-your-own berry farms in Connecticut; I have yet to happen upon a bad one, but there are a few tips to bear in mind. The ideal day to go is a sunny Tuesday through Friday, not too hot, when there has been some rain recently but not a lot of downpours. Why? On weekends, the fields are crowded, and on Mondays the leftover pickings may be slim. Too much rain will waterlog the berries, diluting the flavor and making them far more susceptible to spoilage; not enough rain will make them small and tough. Call ahead to check for field conditions. Wear sunscreen, bug spray, sturdy shoes, and a hat---and don’t forget to save some time just to drink in and savor this seasonal experience.
Strawberries (season in Connecticut: early June through early July): Strawberries, with a high vitamin-C and manganese content, aren’t technically berries at all, but no one who has stood in a strawberry field on a warm day with that ravishing scent rising up could possibly care. Look for glossy skin (this indicates that the berry’s sugar content is at its peak) and deep red color. If you pinch the stem so that a little is left on each strawberry, this not only renders them more attractive for the table, but it also will help them stay fresh a bit longer than they otherwise would. Strawberries are fragile and best placed in a flat container, two or, at the most, three berries deep. This is why you will be given cardboard trays instead of buckets at the pick-your-own farm. They are especially good after a meal featuring the mild flavors of chicken, fish, eggs, or seafood.
Blueberries (season in Connecticut: July through mid-August): Blueberries should be firm and richly colored, with no green spots, and have a bloom (dusky gray cast) to them. Ripe ones have a slight scent, but it does not approach that of strawberries or raspberries in intensity. It is tempting to pick them in handfuls, as if one were a grizzly bear pawing the bushes, but for optimal quality, pick them one by one. It is perfectly all right to place fresh blueberries in a deep container. The ones on the bottom will not get crushed, unless, of course, you wait too long to use them. Blueberries are the stars of breakfast and brunch menus, of course, and also make an especially fine dessert after a meal of seafood.
Raspberries (season in Connecticut: July through mid-August; some varieties crop a second time in September and even into October): Look for deep red fruits. Raspberry plants, which are related to roses, have a tendency to hide their fruits in clusters under lower leaves, where you can’t see them; this is where having a small, trustworthy child comes in handy. A raspberry should slip easily from what botanists call the “receptacle” (the whitish core supporting it); if it doesn’t, it is not ripe. Having picked a ripe raspberry, you then look inside its cavity to ensure that no insects are hiding out there before placing it into your container. It’s not necessary to store fresh raspberries in a single layer, but you can’t put them into a deep container the way you would with blueberries, either, since this will squish the fruits on the bottom. Several raspberries deep in a tray is ideal. Respected by French pastry chefs, raspberries have an air of refinement about them and so are especially suited to meals that take this into consideration. The later part of their season, and the second crop that some varieties produce, coincides with the season for peaches, thus inspiring the classic Peach Melba.
A word of warning: These fruits, as well as more obscure berries, like to turn moldy. It is what they do, given half a chance. If you are not going to use them immediately, they should be refrigerated and covered with paper towels, but not washed until right up until the last minute before they will be eaten. If you wash them sooner, they will interpret this as a cue to begin the mold-producing process. They are, after all, derived from forest plants, sprung from the primeval dark.
There are many recipes making use of berries, including the opportunity to “put up” preserves (as my grandmother would have said), but I think that the goodness of the newly picked fruit is best left unadorned. Bowl, berries, fork. This way of eating them is simple and healthy and keeps under control, if only barely, the strong urge that can come upon a person to stuff handfuls into the mouth. Readers are encouraged to make use of the many berry-picking opportunities that our corner of the world has to offer. See you in the fields.
In the list below, we have abbreviated the berry offerings in each farm. S=strawberries, B=blueberries, R=raspberries. Note that most farms offer many other products as well.
www.jonesfamilyfarms.com S, B
www.silvermansfarm.com B, R
www.brownsharvest.com S, B
www.donderoorchards.com S, B, R
www.easypickinsorchards.com S, B, R
www.thepickinpatch.com S, B
www.rosesberryfarm.com S, B, R
www.deeplyrootedfarms.net S, R
www.ellsworthfarm.com S, B, R
www.evergreenberryfarm.com B, R
www.marchfarm.com S, B
www.ruwetfarm.com S, B
www.lymanorchards.com S, B, R
scottsfarms.com B, R
New Haven County
www.bishopsorchards.com S, B, R
www.nortonbrothersfruitfarm.com B, R
New London County
www.grantsberrypatch.com S, B, R
holmbergorchards.com B, R
www.maplelane.com S, B, R
www.scottsyankeefarmer.net S, B, R
www.scianticvalleyfarm.com S, B
www.buellsorchard.com S, B
www.horselistenersorchard.com B, R
www.raspberryknoll.com B, R