Ask a gardener and strawberry season is summer. It’s bare toes, sundresses and cricket. But for those of us who eat more strawberries than we grow, strawberry season is cold. It’s cups of tea, woolly jumpers and football. That’s because winter is peak season for strawberries grown on the sunshine coast of Queensland. The warm short days and cool nights allow for some of the tastiest of all the strawberries: the magnificently glossy and fragrant Camerosa and the juicy little Ruby Gem. We tasted both on a Tastings: Noosa tour last week.
Our first stop was McMartins Strawberry Farm at Bli Bli. The farm has been in the family for generations, first growing sugar cane, then dairy cows. It’s now a fruit farm, with figs, lychees and custard apples filling the gaps between strawberries. The 320,000 strawberries fruit between May and September. When they are finished the plants are dug out, the beds are prepared again and new runners are planted. You can buy ready-picked strawberries and other produce (including rosella jam made with farm-grown rosellas!), or you can pick your own from the sun-warmed black plastic mounds in the fields. Either way you must not miss the strawberry ice cream. Lillian McMartin makes it with milk from Maleny, fruit from the farm and not much else. We agreed with the judges who gave it Champion ice cream award at the Queensland Food and Wine show in 2012.
Lillian revealed that her favourite strawberry is not the glamorous Camerosa, shining so glossily in the photo above, but the smaller, even more intensely flavoured Ruby Gem. We followed her out into the rows to pick and compare.
And yes, the Ruby Gem was pretty damn good – juicy and sweet with a complex flavour and citrus-like tang. Which is probably just annoying information given that most of the strawberries we get to buy are unnamed varieties, including from McMartins. Around a third of the McMartins strawberry harvest makes it to the Sydney markets, where it’s sold under the Mc’s Berries label.
There are more than 200 strawberry growers in Queensland and they produce 60 million punnets of strawberries a year. We did our best to put a dint in production, eating them fresh from the farm at McMartin’s; from the farmers at Noosa and Eumundi markets; and in desserts just about everywhere. At Spicers Tamarind Retreat in Maleny we ate them fresh and dried into sweet-tart chips alongside mandarin, strawberry sorbet and coconut pudding.
At Valentino’s in Pomona we had them fresh, dried and semi-dried, surrounding a pillowy soft vanilla pannacotta. (And then cheered and booed at a private screening of the Buster Keaton classic Sherlock Jnr, played with live organ accompaniment, in the Majestic Theatre, one of the world’s few operating silent movie theatres.)
And of course we ate them in ice cream as often as possible.
Boyd Cahill makes gelato for his Noosaville cafe, Amo Gelato. He uses local ingredients, sourcing chocolate and peanut brittle from the chocolatier across the road, ginger and fruits from the Noosa Farmers Market, and rich, creamy-yellow jersey milk from a local farmer. To make his strawberry gelato he first macerates the strawberries with sugar before pureeing. The strawberry puree is swirled by hand through a plain gelato to make a richly fruity, creamy strawberry ripple. It’s fantastic, especially eaten by the river in Noosaville’s winter sunshine.