The City Magazine Since 1975

Ripe for the Picking

Ripe for the Picking
April 2011
Grab a bucket and dig into spring’s “real” crop at U-pick strawberry farms

How many of you were raised by parents like mine, the kind that talked about “real” fruits and vegetables? Dad grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, on a farm outside town where they grew “real” tomatoes. Today, he’s a doctor by day and gentleman farmer every remaining second. And my mom? She’s from Denmark, where the soil is so well-tended, black, and fertile that you can pretty much spit out an insult and a compliment will sprout up. Their national dessert is the very “real” strawberry, and though the berries tend to be served with a shower of raw sugar and a quick pour of heavy cream, the fruits are so ruby red, so sweet, and so juicy through and through that they are terrific naked. I learned early on that no need for condiment cover-ups and an abundance of good looks and flavor are the signposts of “real” produce.  

Here in the Lowcountry, where the farm-to-table movement has chefs plating produce so fresh it still carries the scent of sun and soil, there is no shortage of places to bite into “real” homegrown berries. And our area boasts a whole crop of U-pick farms, so when I find myself craving the freshest of fruits, I head for rural roads. My love affair with DIY farm feasting started years ago, when I was still a greenie to Charleston and my pal Natalie asked if I wanted to join her out at Ambrose Family Farm on Wadmalaw Island for a strawberry harvest session. (This was before I realized there are two kinds of islands hereabouts—the sand spit and palm kind and the country sprawl and palm kind. I’m pretty sure I wore a swimsuit under my picking clothes, ever optimistic and slightly puzzled-slash-curious about this exotic beach variety of strawberry.)  
We headed down Maybank Highway about 30 minutes out of town and onto a very real country island where, lo and behold, there were almost three acres of strawberries unabashedly worshipping the sun. We quickly got our buckets and got down to business. For her, that meant berry picking. For me, that meant taste testing. After all, I needed to know how much picking I wanted to invest in…if the haul wasn’t up to snuff, why break my back bending over as I waddled along in the dirt? The verdict: Those strawberries were real enough to rival the Vikings’.

Before long, Natalie and I had begun a little competition of sorts, seeing who worked her way down a row faster, who scored the bigger berries, and who filled her bucket quickest. I learned to pick ones that were a little firmer (the overripe softies nearly exploded as I nabbed them) and to get up under the leaves to find the hidden, passed-over gems. I also learned that you can eat too many berries and to be thankful for portable bathrooms. And when I took the berries home and shared them with my discerning mother? I learned that Danish diplomacy extends to national treasures when she allowed that, yes, indeed, these were “real” strawberries. These days, I can’t pass any neat field from Mount Pleasant to Wadmalaw without the cravings kicking in. Thankfully, it only takes a pint—or three—to help me reach “real” satisfaction.

Berry good!
Strawberry season typically starts in April and lasts through May, but call ahead before hopping in the car. Prices average $8 per U-pick bucket and $10 per pre-picked bucket.

Ambrose Family Farm: 2349 Black Pond Ln., Wadmalaw Island. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m. (843) 559-0988,

Boone Hall Farms: U.S. Hwy. 17 N, Mount Pleasant. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.- 6 p.m.; Sunday, 1-6 p.m. (843) 856-5366 or (843) 856-8154,  

Charpia Farms: 126 Reed St., Summerville. Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. (843) 873-9645,

Rosebank Farms: 4455 Betsy Kerrison Pkwy., John’s Island. Daily, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (call to confirm). (843) 768-0508,

May 7-8
Lowcountry Strawberry Festival

Rides, recipe contests, strawberry picking, a pig race, and the crowning of Miss Berry Princess all await Mother’s Day Weekend at Boone Hall Farms. U.S. Hwy. 17 N, Mount Pleasant. Saturday, May 7, 10am-6pm; Sunday, May 8, noon-6pm. (843)856-8154, $6; $4 ages three-12; child under three free with ticketed adult


<p><em>From the kitchen of Nathan Thurston, chef instructor at Art Institute of Charleston</em></p> <p>Chef’s Note: Make sure the tomatoes are in season and not mealy. Check for mealiness by slicing the tomato and inspecting the interior. “If it’s juicy and smooth without many specks in the ‘meat,’ you’re good to go,” says Thurston. “If it’s a little dry and speckled throughout, cook it down for canning or making tomato paste.”<br /> (Serves 16)</p> <p> </p>
<p><em>From the kitchen of Forrest Parker, chef at Old Village Post House</em></p> <p>Chef’s Note: Parker has no preference on the variety of tomato for this recipe (which won last year’s Heirloom Tomato Trek contest sponsored by Limehouse Produce)—any heirloom that is local and in season will do. He suggests keeping the tomatoes at room temperature, which allows them to ripen and deepen in flavor.
<p><em>From the Kitchen of Chef Robert Carter, Rutledge Cab Co.</em></p> <p>Chef’s Note: For this recipe, Carter prefers the Purple Cherokee variety for its firm texture and dark, rich color. He likes to serve this jam with foie gras; sweetbreads; and grilled meats, such as quail or pork tenderloin. “It’s also great on an eggs Benedict with spicy sausage—one of our specials at Rutledge Cab—and it’s always perfect with fried oysters,” he says.<br /> (Makes 1 Quart)</p>