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Originally published June 15, 2012 at 12:02 PM | Page modified June 21, 2012 at 7:54 AM

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There's no place like home for growing strawberries

Local berries tend to have more intense flavors, but they're also fragile and should be eaten or turned into jam as soon as possible.

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A STRAWBERRY isn't just a strawberry.

We accept that for apples, knowing that, say, Granny Smiths don't taste or cook the same way as Galas. But we're only just starting to recognize that the plastic clamshells of California berries, most giant-sized and red on the outside and white within, aren't the same as our smaller, sweeter, local breeds.

"We're a tiny, tiny market compared to California," says Patrick Moore, a Washington State University scientist who specializes in developing new varieties of berries. California grows around 90 percent of the nation's strawberries, compared with 1 percent for Washington.

But bigger, more transportable berries aren't always better.

Washington berries have mainly been developed for the processing market, to crush into ice cream for companies like Haagen Dazs — and those qualities can be good for consumers, too. "It doesn't have to be rock hard like it would for the fresh market, it doesn't have to be able to sit in storage for a week and then shipped across the country," Moore says.

Local berries tend to have more intense flavors, but they're also fragile and should be eaten or turned into jam as soon as possible. As one commenter warned on an ordering site for Northwest Shuksan strawberries, "You couldn't even ship those berries across the street."

Local tastemaker Jon Rowley placed the Shuksan on food-lovers' radar over the past few years, organizing an annual berry-picking trip to Thulen Farms in Mount Vernon, where the farmers talk about the ruffle-crowned, red-to-the-core, candy-sweet fruit while the pickers devour Shuksan-topped shortcake.

It's no surprise the berry succeeds so well here. Although it has the romantic sound of a wild berry, like many successful local breeds, it was actually developed decades back by WSU researchers to perform well in our climate. Shuksans got their day in the sun in 1970, when they were still standing upright in the testing fields after a hard winter killed off other varieties.

The testing for new favorites never stops.

In 2007, for instance, a group of Seattle chefs taste-tested varieties with Moore at WSU's research center in Puyallup. They liked the sweet Hoods. But the other one that came out on top was known as "No. 2833," a variety being developed by WSU through old-fashioned crosses and field-testing.

This year, we'll be able to get the final No. 2833, now named Puget Crimson. Look for it at farmers markets; Spooner Farms in Puyallup is one that's growing it this year.

It comes on later than most other kinds, Moore says, "and it's a very large fruit and obviously a very, very good flavor" with a nice balance between sweet and tart.

So as you hunt for "local strawberries," ask if they are Shuksan, Hood, Puget Crimson, Puget Summer or Rainiers. "All of those are what you would term June-bearing, or short-day plants," Moore says, which produce just one large amount of fruit and then they're done.

"There's also this sort of cult following about Marshall, which is a variant from the 1800s, but it was probably the dominant variety in the '50s and '60s," Moore says. "By today's standards it would be extremely soft," but delicious.

Whatever variety you have in mind, if you discover it's not available, try another, which may be to your own taste. We ate Hoods when the Shuksans were in short supply at Thulen and liked them every bit as much for our jam.

Rebekah Denn is a Seattle freelance food writer and blogger.

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