Earlier this month, I had an amazing opportunity to spend a weekend learning all about Florida Strawberries. Twenty East Coast Sunday Supper tastemakers were invited to a berry fun weekend in the Tampa, Florida area where we immersed ourselves in educational lectures, cooking demonstrations and field trips with the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. I have always had a love affair with strawberries from Florida, especially from November though April as they are in season.
On Saturday morning, we piled onto a bus that took us to the headquarters of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association in Plant City, Florida, just west of Tampa. Plant City is the undisputed winter strawberry capital of the world and the season concludes with the world famous Florida Strawberry Festival. Upon arriving at the headquarters, we were introduced to our hosts for the weekend, Strawberry Sue and her talented staff. Strawberry Sue is well known throughout the region and the strawberry farming world as she is the Director of Marketing for the FSGA.
We were welcomed with strawberry mimosas, cookies and strawberry pizza.
We also picked up our Strawberry knit caps. You can get a cap as well- just submit a picture with your Florida Strawberries here and you can receive a cap of your very own. And be entered to win a trip to Tradewinds Resort in St. Petersburg Beach, FL (our host hotel for the weekend- more on the resort in tomorrow’s post)–> Florida Strawberry Cap contest.
Our next stop was to a farm known as Strawberry Station, also in Plant City. There are currently two varieties of strawberries growing here, those known as Sweet Sensation and the other called Radiance. (I will get into the varieties later). There are approximately 16,000 plants per acre with most farms ranging from 4 to 350 acres. You do the math, that’s a lot of strawberries.
We learned about the various elements involved in the growing of strawberry plants. From basics like the weather and insects to the cycle of the moon. Believe or not, the cycle of the moon affects the sweetness and flavor of the fruit.
We were given an opportunity to drive the tractor as well as taste some of the fruit straight off the plant in the field.
We were then brought to the Grimes Produce Company just down the road from the fields. This is where the freshly picked strawberries are brought to be cooled and stored before the berries are delivered straight to the markets. It is important to note that these strawberries are not rinsed though giant machines or touched by anyone other than the picker before landing in your grocery cart.
The berries are boxed right in the field and then brought to the cooling facility until delivery. And in the wintertime, Grimes has trucks that will deliver these berries as far away as Canada. As a matter of fact, Florida Strawberries are available across the country from now through March!!
The next stop was lunch at a local pizza joint in Plant City called Old Towne Pizza. This would end up being the only meal over the entire weekend that would not have strawberries in it, but the pizza was excellent!
We didn’t have time to linger over lunch though as our next stop was the University of Florida Research and Education Center in Wimauma, Florida, about 30 miles south of Plant City and Tampa. There we met with Dr. Vance Whitaker, an Associate Professor of Strawberry Breeding. Yes, strawberry breeding is a thing, and it is fascinating. We learned all about the research that goes into breeding the different varietals of strawberries. These are not GMO berries, these are bred through traditional means, pollinating the strawberry flower. The plants are grown in a controlled environment until a new variety with an even better flavor is given to farmers.
The phases of strawberry development was just amazing to me – from the center of a flower to a bright red and ripe fruit.
As we were leaving the research facility and making our way to dinner, we stopped at Goodsons Farms Market where we had the opportunity to stock up on strawberry syrups, butters and jams. And I learned about a strawberry onion- these are a delicious variation of a regular white onion only these are grown on the edge of a strawberry field, thus lending to a sweeter flavor.
We also were surprised with GIANT portions of a Plant City delicacy- the strawberry shortcake. After we each scarfed one of these babies down, we boarded the bus and went straight to dinner.
Dinner was on Davis Island at a restaurant called Oggi Italian Street Food. It was excellent. We were introduced to Strawberry Caprese Salad, and a variety of pasta and chicken dishes.
My favorite was perhaps this Pistachio Chicken dish (and no, there were no strawberries on this dish).
We were treated to grilled pineapple and cannolis for dessert.
After a long but eventful day, we returned to the hotel where we all retreated for the night. More about the hotel and Day 2 of this amazing weekend tomorrow. Salut for now!!
Read my Day 2 recap here –> A Berry Fun Weekend with Florida Strawberries Part II