Making strawberry jam? Choose wisely, intrepid voyager. Variety really does matter, and I find that the distinctions in color and flavor among our glorious Oregon strawberries are important — more important, perhaps, than in our other berry crops.
Avoid anything grown in California. Don’t buy strawberries from the grocery store, since most of those berries are cardboard Californians, day-neutral cultivars bred for continual production, large size, color, and portability. They are dripping with very toxic pesticides and bloody with reprehensible labor practices. Sure, if you live in the Bay Area and can get strawberries grown at a smaller farm, I suppose you could buy California strawberries, since you don’t have much of a choice, but if you’re in Oregon, thank your lucky stars and read on!
Because we live in strawberry heaven, and we don’t have to deal with that nonsense. Oregon, where it’s worth the wait.
As I have made a habit of reporting, I head straight for the light, bright Bentons here in Eugene, since they make a beautiful ruby jam. Strawberries tend to darken with sugar, and cooking makes them even darker, so light berries can really affect the jam’s look. Bentons appear later in the season, so consider experimenting with other berries until you see them. Believe me, you’ll be able to tell the difference. (I even replaced my Seascapes in my own garden with Bentons this year. Seascapes are interesting, since you get dark, sweet, fragile everbearing berries — you’ll see them appear early in the market and then again in fall in Eugene — and they have the added bonus of one big berry that grows with the littler ones on each plant. But they just don’t make as wonderful jam as Bentons.)
This year, I thought I’d shake it up. I bought a half-flat of the legendary Hoods while in Portland last weekend. These are berries that have their own Facebook page. Developed in 1965 by OSU breeders, this variety is known for its tastiness, early showing, and, unfortunately, the susceptibility of the plant to various diseases. Hence, cult status. Live fast, die young. Apparently, there are fewer and fewer growers willing to put up with this diva, so get ’em while you can.
I bought mine from two very pleasant ladies at the Valley Berry Farm stand at the little farmers market in Pioneer Courthouse Square. That’s the stand, behind the dancing couple and the big band. Yes, a big band. Awesome. Sorry, Eugene, PDX wins that round.
The Hoods are slightly darker than Bentons, and they held up perfectly in the car for the entire day, not something that Bentons could do so well. The flavor is complex and not as sweet as other eating berries, but they managed to hold their shape well in my jam and in the fresh strawberry tart I made for dinner last night. I’m not sure I like the flavor as much as the Bentons, but they are a formidable rival.
Both jam and tart were infused with flowers. No peonies, but aren’t these beautiful? I added creme de violette and a touch of Hungarian barack apricot liqueur to the tart berries, and macerated the jam berries with elderflowers and rose geranium leaves.
Always know sometimes think it’s me, but you know I know and it’s a dream. Next up, Bentons!