Strawberry hothouses forever

May 14th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Tochigi and Fukuoka duke it out in the produce section

Tochigi and Fukuoka duke it out in the produce section

Japanese people love to talk about how attuned they are to the seasons, and those who know their food are very picky about consuming produce only in season, which is, of course, the definition of a macrobiotic diet.

Before the rise of chain supermarkets, refrigerated transportation, international trade and sophisticated hothouses, there was actually no alternative to a macrobiotic diet. You ate what was available, and what was available was what was in season. But nowadays, you can get anything you want any time of the year, though, generally speaking, produce tends to be cheaper when it’s in season.

Not so in the case of strawberries, which for all intents and purposes are mostly grown in hothouses. Right now is the natural strawberry season, and until the end of May you can still find fields and hothouses that will let you pick and eat strawberries (more vitamin C than oranges!) for a fee. But the science of growing strawberries indoors has become so exact that most people can’t tell the difference in taste any more between a field grown berry and a hothouse one. For that reason, strawberries are one of the few agricultural endeavors, along with melons, that are guaranteed money-makers. Considered the ultimate of luxuries as recently as the 1980s, they are now affordable to everyone, and no one doesn’t love strawberries.

Tochigi Prefecture is the strawberry capital of Japan, with the Tochi Otome (Tochi maiden) breed of strawberries holding the largest share in the country. The natural season for strawberries is April and May, but hothouse strawberries are available from November to May. Most strawberries are picked when they are slightly unripe and the area around the stem is still white. The reason is that the berries continue to ripen after picking, so that they are at the peak of their flavor by the time they hit the supermarket. If the berries are picked when they’re ripe, they’ll likely be spoiled (and moldy) by the time they are in stores. After being picked they are immediately chilled at around 7 degrees centigrade in order to firm them up so that they won’t bruise as easily.

The wholesale price of good quality Tochigi strawberries is about ¥400 a kilogram, which ends up costing retail between ¥258 and ¥498 per package. Because strawberries are delicate they have to be packed in their store containers at the hothouse by specially trained people. There they are also inspected and classed in terms of shape and size (10 grades) and sweetness (5 grades). Each strawberry is weighed so that the packers can judge how to arrange them for uniform weights. At the main inspection facility in Tochigi, it takes half a day to inspect 10,000 packages’ worth of strawberries and then they are chilled again for a full day before shipment.

Ideally, the strawberries you buy in a supermarket should be eaten the day they arrive, but most stores keep them for up to three days. If you don’t eat all the berries in a package right away, eat the ones at the bottom of the package first, since they are mostly likely to have been bruised in transit. You can tell a strawberry is past its peak when the color is dark and it loses its glossiness.

However, another type of strawberry is becoming popular. Called Asazumi, which means “morning harvest,” these berries are picked when they are ripe in the very early morning, starting at 3 a.m., and rushed to stores the same day. They usually arrive in the Tokyo area by 1 p.m. Since they bruise more easily packing and shipping are done very carefully, and you can recognize them in stores not only by their higher price (at least ¥100 more than Tochi Otome) but also by the absence of cellophane wrapping, which would damage them. Asazumi are only available in Tokyo until mid-May, but you can still buy them in Tochigi until the middle of June.

The reason Asazumi taste better than other strawberries is that while strawberries continue to ripen if they are picked when “white,” the sugar content can only reach its full potential while the berry is on the stem. So Asazumi are picked at the peak of sugar content. For this reason, experts say that the best hothouse strawberries are not the ones you buy in April-May, the natural season, but the ones you buy in January-February. Colder weather slows the ripening process (sunlight, interestingly enough, doesn’t have much effect on ripening) and it’s thus easier to determine the optimum time for picking.

Right now, breeders are working on a new strawberry called Natsu Otome that can reach its peak in summer, usually the worst season for berries, which don’t like heat.

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