Inspecting Strawberry Plants. Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress

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Swanton Berry Farm opens its fields for the roving berry-picking hordes this Friday, and while it’s hard to feel quite the same way about it after reading this, it is nonetheless one of the great pleasures of spring to pile into someone’s car and drive down 101 to pick strawberries at the Coastways Ranch. Followed by: an evening of jam making, and incredibly lame puns about jamming all night and jamming all day. Followed by: spooning said jam over ice cream and eating it until you pass out.

Swanton has the distinction of being America’s first unionized berry farm, as well as one of the few that looks out over the Pacific Ocean. While u-pick isn’t exactly a unionized activity (self-unionization can get tricky), indescribably good union-made strawberry shortcake and strong coffee can be purchased at the affiliated farmstand near the fields.

For those into purchasing without picking, Matt Serecchio, produce buyer for the Bi-Rite Market, recommends the Albion strawberry, a local newcomer that first came into flower at the University of California Wolfskill Experimental Orchard in Winters, CA. The year was 1998. Its creators: two scientists at UC Davis. The Albion is known for its small fruit, its dark red color, and for its tendency to taste very, very good.

The strawberry itself is one of the few crops grown in California that actually originated on the American continent – the cultivated strawberry is actually a cross between a wild strawberry from North America, and another strain found in Chile. The crossing itself happened in France, but you can’t have everything. Strawberries grow well in San Francisco – interested parties are advised to check the exhaustive section on them Golden Gate Gardening, written by local community gardening activist and City College horticulture instructor Pam Peirce.

Just going out of season, reports Serecchio, is citrus. Which is good, because Serecchio also informs us that customers are “kind of tired” of it. Your last chance of the season is the Washington Navel, which Serecchio gets from Bernard Ranch in Riverside County. The variety is the most popular tree in the state for backyard gardens – largely because of its sweetness and juicing quality, (as long as the juice is consumed right away). It doesn’t thrive in San Francisco, but dwarf varieties can be grown in particularly sunny apartments.

The Washington Navel did not originate anywhere near Washington. It was a single mutation that occurred in an orchard in Brazil (where oranges don’t come from either – they originate in Southeast Asia). Grafts of this delicious mutation were shipped repeatedly to Washington DC in the late 1800s via “diplomatic channels” with the intention of forming fruit-based bonds between the countries. One of the original trees of diplomacy still lives at the corner of Magnolia and Arlington in Riverside, not very far from the California Citrus State Historic Park, which is exactly what it sounds like it is.

California grows either all, or nearly all of America’s commercially grown artichokes, depending on who you ask. Of those, almost all are grown just a few hours away from San Francisco. The truly devoted make their pilgrimage to Castroville, to eat artichoke ice cream, pay fealty to the giant concrete and rebar artichoke that serves as a city landmark, and to witness the ag-town excitement that is the artichoke festival (May 15th and 16th! Parade! Vegetable art!). The more homebodyish simply eat them, since they do grow here, and nicely too. The more cocktail-inclined experiment with Cynar, the Italian artichoke liquor.

Matt Serecchio recommends the Italian heirloom artichoke varieties grown by Noe Valley’s Martin Bournhonesque (the artichokes themselves are grown near Salinas). The artichoke’s origins remain mysterious, but North Africa has been cited as a likely spot, as wild relatives have been found there.

The Middle East receives a fair amount of credit for domesticating the artichoke and making it more delicious. All words for artichoke are believed to be phonetic approximations of the Arabic word for the plant, so they were likely early boosters of the concept and practice of eating strange, enormous thistles. For this it is hard not to feel a not inconsiderable amount of gratitude, best experienced while dipping the aforementioned thistle either in homemade aioli, or a little saffron steeped in melted butter and olive oil, lightly salted.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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