When Jamie Barnhill’s Kindergarten class from Forest View Elementary School visited Waller Family Farm in Durham last week, farmer Mark Waller took a few minutes to teach the kids how to pick. And they listened, because at the end, when he asked them what was the rule for picking, they all answered in chorus, “The redder the better!”
It’s a simple rule that grown ups should heed, too. Mark even has it posted at the entrance to the strawberry patch. It’s actually not all that easy making sure the berries are fully red– the shadows of the leaves, the glare of the sun, the contrast on the plastic mulch makes color deceptive. And strawberries have an annoying habit of being nice and red on the upper side and still pink on the underside.
To make it even more complicated, varieties differ as to what is “ripe red”. Of the three major cultivars grown in North Carolina, red-ripe Sweet Charlie is a lighter and brighter red than a Chandler strawberry; a Camarosa is not fully ripe until it is a deep, dark red. Pick it like a Chandler, and it can be disappointing; pick it ripe and it has great flavor. Growers have a hard time convincing even their professional pickers to leave these berries on the plant until fully ripe. Here’s another oddity: Chandler berries tend to ripen first near the stem and last at the tip; some of the current California varieties ripen at the tip first, and tend to have white shoulders.
Strawberries will turn red after they are picked — you can see it happen in the bowl on your kitchen counter — but they will never get any sweeter than the day they were picked. One of the great advantages of buying local and picking your own berries is that you know they have truly ripened in the field.