They are always there. On the shelf of every supermarket and grocery store in their pesky plastic punnets, rosy red and reliable - strawberries.
Connection to our food, even for something as common as strawberries is essential. The more fresh food items we take for granted, the easier they can be lost. We have to shop with the future in mind as food security is up there with having the security of a roof over your head.
LOCAL SUPPLIER INTEL
With this in mind, I spoke to Phil who is The Providore’s strawberry supplier and an expert on the subject. Anthony buys fresh strawberries from him twice a week, direct from the farm for our customers, so they always get the freshest and best available. They’ve usually been picked within a day or two and taste outstanding!
Phil’s enthusiasm, knowledge and commitment to this fruit is impressive. And it’s so good to be able to talk to a trusted local supplier who tells it ‘how it is’!
Late winter, early spring is prime strawberry time. Get out to pick your own just 20 minutes from the CBD in Wanneroo and Gnangara. The tip is to go early as berries picked in the cool of the morning will last longer.
WHEN TO BUY STRAWBERRIES
Every 4 to 5 years new strawberry varieties are released, this is because the current Mother plants run out of steam. I think most mum’s know that feeling!
There’s ongoing Australian breeding programmes, with I believe, the University of Queensland leading the way. No strawberries are grown under license, so all grower have equal access to grow any new varieties.
Growers buy runners, which are an early form of plant, torn up by a potato harvesting type machine and are sent over to WA from QLD NSW and TAS.
A completely delicious new variety this year is Scarlet Rose, bred from 2 older varieties. It’s a winter strawberry, planted in March/April and ready for picking from June onwards. In winter picked strawberries can hold, for up to 8 days.
The plants then lay dormant in summer. Strawberries grown in Wanneroo, Gingin, Bullsbrook and Gnangara, where sandy soil gets extremely hot, are kept alive by careful and consistent watering.
Albion is another great winter variety with big fruit. It’s really good now but doesn’t hold up when the heat increases.
Cabrillos are a consistent summer strawberry. Planted at the end of April and harvested from mid-October on. With warm overnight temperatures, berries ripen day and night during summer, so are picked early morning, with workers leaving the fields by 11am.
Early strawberries come from the warmer areas of Wanneroo, Gingin, Bullsbrook and Gnangara, then Southern Forests produce kicks in, and finally Albany is last to join the picking as it’s so much cooler in the south.
Summer is the best time to buy trays of strawberries and make jam as the strawberries will only hold up for about 4 days. You’ll find bargains early in the new year and we offer trays for sale when supply outstrips demand.
PESKY PLASTIC PACKAGING
Travel times across WA and Australia mean pesky plastic punnets will hold strawberries best. Even though there are cardboard punnets on the market, the moisture is drawn out of the fruit quickly and they sadly don’t last as long compared to being transported in plastic.
Our strawberry supplier uses 50% recycled plastic punnets and is moving to 100% soon. Plus the punnets can be re-cycled, so do remember to put in your yellow lidded bin.
He also goes the extra mile to store his just-picked strawberries so they reach you in their prime. In the packing shed the crates full of strawberries in punnets are covered with tarps and pressured, cool air is blown in. This removes excess condensation and prevents mould.
CONTAMINATED STRAWBERRIES AND COVID
In 2018 with a number of needles found in strawberries, retailers and consumers were spooked and masses of strawberries, in their prime, had to be dumped. This ruined many growers winter crop and halted production for a long time.
Since then, farming strawberries has become a very expensive practice with many new precautions in place
- Metal Detectors on packing conveyors
- More quality control checks in field and in shed
- Re-training of staff – only allowed water bottle water when packing. If found with anything else in their possession, they get 2 written warnings then immediate dismissal if rule broken again.
The 2020 COVID pandemic was the next setback. Like so many other fresh produce items, prices went up and have never come back down due to the following:
- Transport costs rising (wages and fuel)
- Increased fertilizer costs
- Wages increase - min wage cost around $38/hr total
Both these occurrences threatened our food security and have had long lasting effects on the community of growers and consumers.
The final and very important topic around strawberries is the way pests and disease are handled. Farmers are doing their best to minimise chemical sprays and many are using an integrated pest management system. ‘Good’ bugs are placed in the fields to eat the ‘bad’ bugs which is what nature intended. The more bugs that are released, the less sprays are needed. However, some approved sprays are necessary to do the job the bugs can’t but rest assured they do dissipate before the strawberries are picked so are not harmful. However, it’s still a good idea to wash strawberries intact before removing the green calyx and consuming.
PREPERATION AND STORAGE TIPS
I wash strawberries in their punnet under running water as it allows the water to drain out. I leave them to dry at room temperature for 10 minutes or so, then I place them in an absorbent kitchen paper lined container and keep covered in the fridge.
They will keep refrigerated for a few days (depending on when they were picked and how they were handled and stored during their journey) but my recommendation is to consume them within 2 to 3 days of buying, this way you’ll get the best strawberry flavour and nutrient hit possible.
NOTE: Strawberries that are grown interstate can take up to 5 days to reach us, and are sprayed again before they are allowed in to W.A. We also read a lot about sprays that are used in the U.S. but are banned here in Australia. Do fact check before believing what you read is true for us in Aus too.
We are extremely fortunate to live in a place where we can grow an amazing array of fresh produce, relatively close to the main areas of population. Many farms are family owned and run and they want the best for customers, they don’t just value profit over health of consumers.
So my advice is to choose local every time, and appreciate the care and work that has gone into getting great strawberries into your kitchen!
Try my quick Strawberry Spoon Cake recipe. It's delish!
Listen to Tracey on ABC radio Kitchen Conversations talking 'strawberries' (start at 2 hrs 33 minutes in) recording is up for 28 days from 7th October 2023.
*All photos of strawberries are taken by Tracey, strawberries are supplied by Phil and distributed through The Providore Grocery Delivery Service around Perth.