Wednesday 28 March, 2012

Berry Interesting: A Visit To Driscoll’s

Driscoll's strawberry

That is unretouched color.

That is unretouched color.

Whether you write about food or just enjoy it, knowing your sources is never a bad idea. So when the opportunity arose to visit the Cassin ranch in Watsonville, CA where Driscoll’s Berries conducts their research, I was thrilled to accept.

So, when someone asks where your berries come from, don't say "the supermarket."

So, when someone asks where your berries come from, don't say "the supermarket."

Prior to my visit, I thought of Driscoll’s berries, particularly their raspberries and blackberries, as a premium product that I would see my favorite patissiers and mixologists use as garnish. How wrong I was: according to Driscoll’s Phillip Stewart (a PhD who is their Principal Scientist for Strawberry Breeding), 84-92% of US market for raspberries is grown by Driscoll’s, who actually also grow and sell fruit in several other countries and continents including Mexico, South America, England and Spain.

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I wonder if I can get one of these at the Cracker Barrel store?

I wonder if I can get one of these at the Cracker Barrel store?

Stewart and a grower named Steve Garrett sat down to a berry-filled breakfast with myself and a bushel of other food bloggers where they explained some background before we got to try some fascinating developing strawberry breeds, and then took a tour through the raspberry plantings.

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Here are some of the interesting tidbits we found out:

On blackberries:

• “The bigger the thorn, the better the taste.”

• There are several varieties. Carmel is considered the most productive. Driscoll’s generally grows King George.

• Driscoll’s grows blackberries with “hoop houses” or canopies over them. The picking season is only six weeks, which is challenging for laborers, so Driscoll’s grows several sub-species to stagger maturation to at least 8 weeks.

• Blackberries take two years to fruit (if you’re growing your own, don’t be disappointed year one!)

On raspberries:

• Raspberries must be all hand picked 7 days a week, every other day, because they’re delicate, require more work than any other product.

• Raspberries are also canopied and have a short growing season.

On strawberries:

• Driscoll’s original strawberries came out of a US govt. breeding program at University of California that was stopped during WWII, but Driscoll’s paid to finish, in order to have proprietary rights to the berries.

• First year, planted in July, crop comes in fall, second years in spring

• Strawberries are hermaphrodites that self-flower; “They have the same father and mother, which is less creepy for strawberries”

• Fruit malformation happens when flowers don’t start right

• The woody center of a strawberry plant leaves diseases in ground. Plantings need to shift every three years and take a year off. Raspberries good as a rotation crop, they’re high in phosphorous

• Much more breeding in strawberries than other berries because there’s more competition in the market.

Dr. Phil

Dr. Phil

On organic vs. conventional farming:

• Conventional and organic only need a 25 ft barrier by current standards

• Driscoll”s has been breeding on non-fumigated ground for ten years

• The real challenge to growers wanting to convert their land is nobody wanting transitional (conventional to organic) fruit, which takes 3 seasons.

Which of these is not like the other? All of them, actually.

Which of these is not like the other? All of them, actually.

Phil Stewart brought out a tray of blister packed strawberries, each with long numbers written on in Sharpee. Turns out, each of the numbers represented a different clone with which he was experimenting. And while they were all pure juicy ripe gorgeous fleshy berries, the differences in texture, color, and flavor were remarkable. Some have an amazing floral component…and when another reminded me of grape candy, Stewart pointed out that the “Mara des Bois” species is a typical source of “natural grape” flavoring.

Put three food bloggers in a room and you'll get six opinions ;-)

Put three food bloggers in a room and you'll get six opinions ;-)

Stewart also told us:

• The main variety of strawberries is San Juan

• There are dozens of different sugar molecules in strawberries

• Developmental process for a new strawberry clone takes 6 years,

• 12-15 varieties of strawberries are sold every year.

• Different countries/cultures like different things in strawberries. For example, the UK prefers a lighter color and less ripe berry. Stewart’s team are experimenting with producing different color as well as flavor and other aspects.

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“Every decision you make, you throw out a bunch of possibilities,” he says

Then Phil took us to the raspberry tasting blocks, where workers were hand-pollinating different strains, keeping them in bags to control cross-pollination (usually bees do the work-in fact they bring in beehives to the fields for raspberries and blackberries).

Field research. No, literally.

Field research. No, literally.

Afterward, Steve took us on a quick tour of some of his fields, pointing out the canopies, special tarping for strawberries, as well as how close the “conventional” and “organic” fields are.

That tarping under the strawberries (organic) makes picking a great deal easier, as you can imagine.

That tarping under the strawberries (organic) makes picking a great deal easier, as you can imagine.

Conventional raspberries under canopies.

Conventional raspberries under canopies.

All in all a fascinating tour and, wow, hella good fruit.

Here are the reports by my fellow bloggers on the trip:

The Bubbly Girl

Shutterbean (I make a cameo here)

Dessert First

Rona Lewis

What's Cookin (also Rona)

The Sophisticated Gourmet

ORIGINALLY POSTED AUGUST 2011


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